Sunday, May 3, 2020


That this is the age of pandemic would be bad news, but common knowledge is not news at all. There is, however, good news emerging from the relentless recitation of death and economic depression: An effort is underway to bring to account those responsible for the sudden outbreak and global spread of the coronavirus, named COVID-19. Winning satisfaction in court against a sovereign nation, not assured, would be all the more challenging with surly China as the defendant. Still, if the U.S. Congress would unite around a patriotic cause, Americans would have a chance to win justice that assuages lost lives and property.

Even as contagion continues to ravage urban communities, the New York metropolitan area in particular, legislation has been introduced on Capitol Hill with a wordy but pointed title: the Holding the Chinese Communist Party Accountable for Infecting Americans Act of 2020. The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, would amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, creating a specific exception for damages resulting from China’s failure to prevent the widespread transmission of the deadly virus.

“By silencing doctors and journalists who tried to warn the world about the coronavirus, the Chinese Communist Party allowed the virus to spread quickly around the globe,” said Mr. Cotton in statement accompanying the April 16 filing. “Their decision to cover up the virus led to thousands of needless deaths and untold economic harm. It’s only appropriate that we hold the Chinese government accountable for the damage it has caused.”

And China had help. Early on, the World Health Organization (WHO), which the United States funds to the tune of a much as $500 million a year, downplayed the transmissibility of the virus among the human population and discouraged the use of travel bans to stop its spread internationally. On Wednesday, President Trump denounced the organization for slow-walking news of the contagion: “We’re not happy about it, and we are by far the largest contributor to WHO,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “They misled us. They’re literally a pipe organ for China.”

Ongoing evidence-gathering conducted by the U.S. government adds credence to charges of China’s efforts to silence news of the outbreak, which allowed its citizens to travel abroad and spread the virus worldwide before the alarm bells were sounded.

An April 29 article in this publication by national security reporter Bill Gertz described a U.S. analysis concluding that a laboratory in Wuhan as the “most likely” source of the virus. Though the evidence is incomplete, there is “circumstantial evidence” that either the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is responsible. Other possible sources, including the nearby, now-infamous “wet market” where exotic animals are slaughtered and sold for consumption, “have been proven to be highly unlikely.”

Whether the disease escaped from a lab or a meat market, there is little doubt it was a product of China, and that authorities were negligent in alerting world health officials until it was too late to halt its spread. Less certain is whether Americans will succeed in penetrating that nation’s immunity from liability and win restitution for the tens of thousands of lives lost and trillion of dollars in damage to the U.S. economy.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act of 1976 places limits on lawsuits filed against nations in U.S. courts. There is ample reason to shield foreign governments from incessant attacks from legal magpies, but heinous acts by officialdom don’t deserve immunity. Accordingly, Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act on 2016, which opened the way for U.S. citizens to sue Saudi Arabia for alleged complicity in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Cotton-Crenshaw legislation seeks to create an additional exception to sovereign immunity that would hold China liable for covering up the release of the coronavirus and intentionally allowing it to spread to other lands, including the United States. If it were to become law, Americans would be empowered to sue China for damages in U.S. courts, provided no settlement had been reached between Washington and Beijing.

Nothing can bring back the tens of thousands of American lives cut short by the coronavirus, and recouping the trillions of dollars in lost economic activity could take years. Still, China should be held accountable for unleashing a global catastrophe. Or it could happen again.

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