As Death Toll Mounts, Governments Point Fingers Over Coronavirus

An Iranian official claimed without evidence that the epidemic could be an American bioweapon, after some U.S. officials said the same about China. Saudi Arabia said its cases were Iran’s fault. South Korea lashed out at Japan over travel restrictions and responded in kind.

At a time of global crisis, when the new coronavirus has infected more than 100,000 people, killed more than 3,400, and all but shut down whole industries, the world’s scientists and public health officials are working together across ideological and national borders to try to stop the epidemic.

But as the virus continues its rapid spread, political leaders in many countries seem to have seized on a different question: Who can be blamed?

“Outbreaks take place within the context of the real world, so of course there’s always some level of politics going on,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, a former assistant director general of the World Health Organization. “But I think that what we’re seeing now is at a higher level of blame game than we’ve seen in the past.”

The accusations within countries and between them is often well-founded — there really have been failed quarantines, inadequate equipment and training, and attempts to deny the crisis.

But even when it is justified, experts say, the criticism can hinder efforts to pull together to face down the emergency. They said the urgent problems should be aired in a way that does not threaten cooperation while those that can wait should be set aside.

Public displeasure with global leaders has spread nearly as fast as the virus itself, which has reached more than 80 countries. And when those leaders look to point fingers elsewhere, they tend to point in the most predictable directions, piggybacking on old hostilities.

President Trump tried to deflect criticism of his government’s response by pinning testing deficiencies on former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Mr. Trump — whose critics note that he has cut health programs and made unrealistically rosy pronouncements about the new disease — had a rare moment of accord with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran. Both men claimed their enemies were cynically ginning up fear of the virus.

Iran’s government at first insisted that all was well but now admits to thousands of infections, and outbreaks in several countries have been traced to people returning from Iran. But the sharpest reaction came from its regional adversary, Saudi Arabia, which forbids its people from traveling to Iran.

In a statement made through the official Saudi Press Agency, the government on Thursday accused Iran of recklessly allowing the disease to spread. It said that five Saudis had visited Iran, helped by Iranian officials who did not stamp their passports, and had returned to the kingdom infected by the virus.

In Japan, more than a million posts on Twitter recently demanded that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resign over his handling of the outbreak. He was largely invisible in the early weeks of the outbreak, and the government’s lax treatment of the outbreak aboard a cruise ship allowed it to spread.

On Thursday, Mr. Abe imposed a 14-day quarantine on all visitors from South Korea and China. More than 90 countries have restricted travel from South Korea, which has the second-largest outbreak after China, but it was the move by Japan, historically Korea’s nemesis, that struck a nerve.

South Korea’s government on Friday called the measures “excessive and irrational,” suggested that Tokyo had “other motives than containing the outbreak,” and said it would restrict Japanese visitors in return.

“We cannot understand Japan’s decision to take this unfair step without consulting with us in advance,” South Korea’s presidential National Security Council said in a statement.

In Britain, opposition politicians are quick to note that a decade of austerity under Conservative governments has drained the health care system of resources, which they say leaves the country unprepared for an epidemic.

Dr. Fukuda, who now heads the University of Hong Kong’s school of public health, said that widespread anger in Hong Kong at the government’s refusal to bar arrivals from mainland China built on months of protests against that government for being too close to Beijing.

Facing a previously unknown, fast-moving virus, experts say, it is inevitable that even the best governments will be caught unprepared and make mistakes.

“We shouldn’t be associating, ‘oh, increase in numbers’ with failed government,” said Dr. Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. “We should see that governments can be trying their best but still find it hard to contain this virus.”

In China, where the virus emerged in the city of Wuhan, the authorities were slow to react at first, denying that there was a problem and even punishing those who raised the alarm. Since then, the government has responded aggressively, all but halting the spread of the virus by locking down areas with more than 50 million people. This approach won international praise, and China has been touting its strategy as a model for the rest of the world.

Yet in China, anger at the government continues to fester. When Chinese officials, including the one leading the central government’s response, visited Wuhan on Thursday, locked-down residents shouted complaints out their windows.

“Everything is fake!” one resident yelled, according to a video shared by People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper.

In a sign of just how much countries have struggled to rein in the outbreak, government officials themselves have been infected in China, France, Iran and Japan. The virus has especially roiled Iran’s government, with dozens of officials having fallen ill and an adviser to the supreme leader and a diplomat having died.

The head of the W.H.O., Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, aired his frustration on Thursday with governments that he said have not taken the virus seriously enough, in his strongest public rebuke to date.

“This is not a time for excuses,” he said. “This is a time for pulling out all the stops.

“In some countries, the level of political commitment and the actions that demonstrate that commitment do not match the level of the threat we all face.”

But mindful, as always, of political sensitivities, the W.H.O. leader was careful not to call out any countries or leaders by name.

From the start of the epidemic, obfuscation has eroded government credibility. Experts fear that finger-pointing is also lowering trust in public health systems and governments, when those are essential in overcoming the crisis.

“You can say, ‘It’s your fault, it’s my fault,’” said Dr. David Heymann, a former chief of communicable diseases at the W.H.O. “I think we have to just get on with it and accept where we are now.”

Reporting was contributed by Russell Goldman, Choe Sang-Hun, Amy Qin, Elaine Yu, Javier C. Hernández and Ben Dooley.

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