Coronavirus pandemic

Australia presses China on probe into Covid-19

People wearing face masks walk in the Burwood suburb of Sydney, on April 14, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE • Australia yesterday added to growing pressure on China over its handling of the novel coronavirus, questioning its transparency and demanding an international investigation into the origins of the virus and how it spread.

The coronavirus is believed to have emerged in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It has spread around the world, infecting more than 2.3 million people and killing over 161,000 of them.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said her concern about China's transparency was at a "a very high point".

"The issues around the coronavirus are issues for independent review, and I think that it is important that we do that," Ms Payne told ABC television. "In fact, Australia will absolutely insist on that."

Australia has managed to get the epidemic under control before it strained its public health system, reporting 53 new cases yesterday. That took its total to 6,586, according to Health Ministry data. There have been 71 deaths in Australia.

The rate of increase in new cases has been below 1 per cent for seven consecutive days - much lower than in many other countries.

Ms Payne's call for an enquiry into the outbreak comes at time of tense ties between her country and its most important trading partner. Relations have deteriorated amid Australian accusations of Chinese meddling in domestic affairs and concern about what Australia sees as China's growing, and undue, influence in the Pacific region.

Mr Payne also said Australia shared similar concerns to United States President Donald Trump over the World Health Organisation's (WHO) handling of the crisis. Mr Trump has said Washington will halt payments to the UN body that amounted to US$400 million (S$569 million) last year.

Ms Payne added that she believed the fallout from the pandemic was set to change the relationship between Australia and China "in some ways".

Health Minister Greg Hunt backed the call for an independent review, saying Australia had achieved success in limiting the spread of the virus in part by going against WHO's advice.

"What we saw from some officials in Geneva, we think was a response which didn't help the world," he told a briefing. "We have done well because we made our own decisions as a country."

Australia on Feb 1 banned people arriving from China. It later closed its borders and imposed strict curbs on public movements.

Mr Hunt said Australia was winning in its campaign against the coronavirus but had not yet won.

"We have to focus on containment and capacity," he said.

Neighbouring New Zealand, which adopted one the world's harshest lockdowns even before reporting a first death, has been even more successful in suppressing coronavirus.

There were four new confirmed cases in New Zealand yesterday, bringing the total number of infections to 1,098. Eleven people have died, Health Ministry data showed.

"I know it hasn't been easy, but it has been working," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said during a televised briefing.

She said her government will meet today to decide whether to ease social distancing restrictions.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2020, with the headline Australia presses China on probe into Covid-19. Subscribe