MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia on Sunday 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 some 2.3 million people and killing nearly 160,000 of them, according to Reuters calculations.
Australia’s 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,” Payne told ABC television.
“In fact, Australia will absolutely insist on that.”
Australia has managed to get its epidemic under control before it strained its public health system, reporting 53 new cases on Sunday. They took its total to 6,586, according to the health ministry data.
There have been 71 deaths in Australia. The rate of increase in new cases has been below 1% for seven consecutive days - much lower than in many other countries.
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.
“My trust in China is predicated in the long-term,” Payne said. “My concern is around transparency and ensuring that we are able to engage openly.”
Australia’s call for an investigation comes as U.S. President Donald Trump has been stepping up his criticism of China.
Trump and his senior aides have also accused China of a lack of transparency after the coronavirus broke out. On Saturday, Trump said China should face consequences if it was “knowingly responsible” for the pandemic.
China dismisses such criticism saying it has been open about the outbreak and in warning the world about it.
Last week, Trump suspended aid to the World Health Organization accusing it of being “China-centric”.
The Geneva-based agency rejected that but Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt also criticized it, saying some of its response to the coronavirus was not helpful.
“What we saw from some officials in Geneva, we think was a response which didn’t help the world,” Hunt told a briefing.
“We have done well because we made our own decisions as a country.”
Australia went against the advice of the WHO on Feb. 1 and banned people arriving from China. It later closed its borders and imposed strict curbs on public movements.
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.
Neighboring 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 on Sunday, bringing the total 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 at a televised briefing. She said her government will meet on Monday to decide whether to ease social distancing restrictions.
Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Robert Birsel
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