World

Fiji responds to worsening Covid-19 outbreak with faster vaccine rollout. China introduces three-child policy to boost falling population. Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett make deal to share Israel PM role. By Jonathan Pearlman.

US puts Wuhan lab back under microscope

United States President Joe Biden at the White House last month.
Credit: Nicholas Kamm / AFP

Great power rivalry

United States: In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department, then overseen by Mike Pompeo, released a document titled “Fact Sheet: Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology”. The document set out various claims about the institute, including the allegation that several researchers in Wuhan became sick in 2019, shortly before the first identified case of Covid-19.

It said US officials had not concluded whether the virus originated with an animal or a laboratory accident, but it urged China to allow investigators to access the institute’s laboratories.

At the time, this document was largely seen as part of the Trump administration’s efforts to blame Beijing for the worsening pandemic. Joe Biden, after his inauguration, seemed to show little interest in the Wuhan laboratory-leak theory.

But the president has changed tack. Last week, he announced that he had asked US intelligence agencies to assess whether Covid-19 originated with humans or a laboratory leak. A report is due within 90 days.

Most scientists still say the evidence suggests the virus had natural origins, but the consensus is fracturing. In May, a group of researchers wrote a letter to the journal Science saying the lab-leak theory must be taken seriously until more data was made available. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last year that the evidence “very, very strongly” indicated natural origins. But he recently backed calls for further inquiries, saying he was “not convinced” the pandemic originated with animals.

China described Biden’s inquiry as a political stunt, saying he was using the pandemic to stigmatise Beijing and to “shirk responsibility” for America’s mishandling of the virus.

Biden wants the intelligence agencies to reach a clear conclusion, but this may prove difficult. A senior US official said last week that of the 18 intelligence organisations, two believe Covid-19 began with animals, one believes it began with a laboratory accident, and the remainder say they do not have enough information to make an assessment. 

The neighbourhood

Fiji: Lockdowns were imposed this week on the main hospital in Nadi and in two wings of the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva, Fiji’s largest hospital, as a worsening Covid-19 outbreak spread across the island nation.

As of Thursday, Fiji had recorded 508 cases of Covid-19. Of these, 403 occurred during the current outbreak. Most of the cases originated with several known sources, including clusters linked to a supermarket, several funerals and an outbreak that has swept through the navy.

The government has imposed curfews, restricted movement in and out of specified zones on Viti Levu, the largest island, and accelerated its vaccine rollout. About 3 per cent of Fiji’s 940,000 residents have had two vaccine doses.

The outbreak has taken a heavy toll on the economy and has led to an increase in bartering. The government said this week it will give unemployed people on Viti Levu a one-off payment of $F50. The unemployment rate in Fiji is believed to be about 35 per cent, up from about 4 per cent before the pandemic.

Democracy in retreat

China: On Monday, China’s Communist Party announced that married couples will be allowed to have three children, just five years after it shifted to a two-child policy.

The decision follows the release last month of a census showing China faces an ageing and soon-to-be declining population. The country’s fertility rate is 1.3, one of the lowest in the world. Its population in 2020 was 1.41 billion residents, up from 1.4 billion in 2019.

China’s fertility rate has fallen significantly in the past four years despite lifting its birthing restrictions – a decline blamed on the reluctance of couples to have large families.

On Tuesday, a Human Rights Watch report found that China’s two-child policy had been accompanied by widespread discrimination against pregnant women. It found that job advertisements often specify preferences for men, or women who already have children, and that some women have been fired after revealing to their employer that they are pregnant. A recent university graduate claimed she was asked about her child-bearing plans at all five job interviews she attended and that three said they would not hire her if she wanted to have a child. The report said legal protections for women are weak and inadequately enforced.

The new three-child policy was accompanied by proposals to increase education, tax and housing supports for families to try to address growing concerns among prospective parents about the expense of having children.

In the province of Heilongjiang, a trial is already under way in which couples are allowed to have three children. The early results reportedly suggest that allowing extra children is having little effect.

Spotlight: Israel to swap PMs

On Wednesday, Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader, confirmed he had been able to assemble a narrow – and unlikely – coalition to replace Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

Lapid made a leadership rotation deal with Naftali Bennett, a staunch right-wing nationalist who is due to serve as prime minister first before handing over to Lapid. Bennett’s Yamina party won only 6 per cent of the vote at the election in March, but its seven seats were crucial to enabling Lapid to form a majority coalition in the 120-member Knesset.

Bennett initially backed Netanyahu’s Likud party but said he would support a centrist government led by Lapid to avoid yet another election. Israel has held four elections in the past two years.

Bennett, a 49-year-old former technology entrepreneur, opposes the formation of a Palestinian state and strongly supports the settler movement. As part of his deal with Lapid, Bennett has reportedly agreed not to seek to annex territories or build new settlements. Lapid, a 57-year-old former news anchor and author, supports Palestinian statehood and is popular with secular Israelis. He is expected to serve as foreign minister for two years before swapping roles with Bennett.

Netanyahu, who is 71, has been prime minister since 2009 and also from 1996 to 1999. He has a loyal supporter base but his ruling coalitions have increasingly relied on the backing of right-wing and religious parties after other parties refused to support him while he continues to fight fraud charges.

Lapid’s newly formed coalition includes a wildly improbable set of secular, left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Islamist parties. It has coalesced around the removal of Netanyahu but seems unlikely to guarantee political stability for Israel. Before the country’s last election, Bennett vowed in a television interview that he would never rotate the prime ministership with Lapid. “I’m a man of the right and he’s a leftist, and I don’t act against my values,” he said then. 

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "Biden puts Wuhan lab back under microscope".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.