‘A Great Injustice’: Mississippi Suing China for COVID-19 ‘Cover-Up’

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, left, says she is working on a lawsuit against the Chinese government over its response to the novel coronavirus. A Mississippi congressman has also asked U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, right, to consider charges in the International Criminal Court. (Courtesy Lynn Fitch)

Mississippi will sue China, alleging “malicious and dangerous acts that caused deaths, health injuries and serious economic loss from the COVID-19 crisis,” the State’s attorney general, Lynn Fitch, announced on Wednesday.

“Too many Mississippians have suffered as a result of China’s cover-up. They must not be allowed to act with impunity. Mississippi deserves justice, and I will seek that in court,” Fitch said in an April 22 statement. Missouri filed its own lawsuit against the Chinese government this morning.

The Republican attorney general plans to invoke the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to seek damages. That law establishes under which circumstances U.S. courts can be used to sue foreign powers, but under the act, foreign nations are immune from U.S. prosecution. 

Though Fitch’s statement says she “is preparing to file a lawsuit against China to hold the Communist nation accountable,” she could model the Mississippi lawsuit after Missouri, which is suing the Communist Party of China, rather than the People’s Republic of China. That distinction could prove difficult for states to successfully argue in court, though, because the CPC is mainland China’s sole governing party.

In a letter earlier this week, Fitch asked Mississippi’s congressional delegation to support legislation that would amend FSIA to allow Americans to pursue damages and create “an even clearer pathway to victory for the people of Mississippi.” The bill is U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton’s “Holding the Chinese Communist Party Accountable for Infecting Americans Act of 2020.” It would “provide a civil action against a foreign state for deliberate concealment or distortion of information with respect to an international public health emergency.” Cotton is a Republican from Arkansas.

“China did the world a great injustice by engaging in a complex cover-up of the dangers of this deadly virus,” Fitch wrote. “By silencing journalists, doctors, whistleblowers, and others, China exposed millions to the Coronavirus and kept the world from preparing, leading to higher death tolls and more dangerous public health impacts.”

U.S. Intel Warned of ‘Cataclysmic Event’ in November

Early on in the outbreak late last year, China sought to tamp down news of the outbreak and to downplay its severity. But on April 8, 2020, ABC News reported that U.S. intelligence began warning in November 2019 “that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing the patterns of life and business and posing a threat to the population,” and held multiple briefings with the White House and others in the federal government throughout December. One source told ABC that analysts had already “concluded that it could be a cataclysmic event.”

Despite that, President Donald Trump spent much of January and February downplaying the virus himself. In late February, he told supporters at a rally that, after Democrats failed to remove him from office with impeachment earlier this year, they saw the coronavirus as a new partisan avenue.

“It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax,” the president said on Feb. 28, one day before the country confirmed for the first time that at least one American had died from the virus. The government has since confirmed that at least two Americans died from the virus weeks earlier.

Two days before that, on Feb. 26, Trump claimed 15 Americans had the virus and that “the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero, so that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” In reality, the U.S. had already confirmed 58 cases by that point. 

In a meeting the next day, the president claimed the virus would magically go away: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

“Just stay calm, it will go away,” he reiterated weeks later, on March 10. By that point, the U.S. had confirmed 1,300 cases. 

Trump continued holding rallies with thousands of supporters in early March, but began to take the threat more seriously by mid-March, after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

‘We Must Hold China Accountable’

Fitch is not the only Mississippi leader who is pushing to punish China. 

On April 15, Mississippi Congressman Steven Palazzo, who represents the Gulf Coast and the state’s Pine Belt region, cosponsored House Resolution 907, criticizing the Chinese government for its response to COVID-19.

“At the end of the day, we all know the coronavirus originated in China, and if the Chinese government had clearly communicated the global threat stemming from their country, lives around the world could have been saved,” Palazzo said in a statement announcing his support for the resolution. “We must hold China accountable for their refusal to cooperate with international health authorities in the midst of a pandemic.”

On April 17, Mississippi State Auditor Shad White posted a video on social media saying China’s lies about COVID-19 demonstrate that the U.S. should trust neither that country nor its companies. He urged state and local leaders to block purchases from Chinese technology companies.

“We cannot trust those companies because some of the technology they are selling like surveillance cameras, like drone cameras, any technology they’re selling may have a backdoor in it that allows the Chinese government to get access to our entire system,” White said.

Congress, through the National Defense Authorization Act, has already banned federal agencies from purchasing equipment from Chinese technology companies like Huawei and ZTE, White wrote in a column for the Clarion-Ledger. State and local officials should mandate compliance with the NDAA rules in its equipment purchasing practices, too, he wrote.

In late March, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves implicitly criticized China’s authoritarian control of its citizens, when he rejected calls to implement stronger social-distancing and isolation measures, akin to ones China adopted in January, to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Mississippi.

“Mississippi’s never going to be China. … When looking at the numbers China’s putting out, claiming that they have no new cases over a period of time—I’m not entirely sure we can trust that data,” Reeves said on March 23, at a time when the Mississippi State Department of Health had only confirmed 249 cases and one death in the Magnolia State. In the month since, the number of cases has grown 20-fold, reaching 5,153 today, with 201 dead.

Palazzo Calls for International Case

On April 20, Palazzo and 22 other U.S. House members sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, urging them to bring a case against China in the International Criminal Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, for its actions.

“As one of nearly 200 states legally bound to the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR), China has a duty to rapidly gather and protect information and contribute to the common understanding of public health emergencies with international implications,” the letter reads. “Article 6 of the IHR says States must provide expedited, timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed information to the WHO about the public health emergencies identified … to prevent global pandemics.”

The letter alleges that the Chinese government “made intentional false claims to its own people and the world about the nature of the virus” and that, when doctors and journalists tried to warn the public about the virus, China’s government either suppressed or jailed them.

The letter points to an epidemiological model at the University of Southampton in England, which suggests China could have cut the number of infections by 95% if the country had acted three weeks sooner.

Chinese Doctor Tried to Warn Public Early

On December 30, the letter recites, Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist who worked in Wuhan, the center of the early outbreak, used an online chatroom to warn about the virus’ dangers. But four days later, the Chinese Public Security Bureau made him sign a letter claiming he made “false statements.”

“Almost one month later, Chinese authorities were still making false assurances to the public that it was safe for large gatherings to assemble and celebrate the Lunar New Year on Jan. 25. Dr. Li Wenliang died on Feb. 7, 2020 from COVID-19,” the letter reads.

While the president has since cast the blame solely on China for the severity of the outbreak in the U.S., he praised China’s response early on, saying he appreciated their “transparency.”

“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!,” Trump tweeted on Jan. 24.

Trump continued praising the Chinese government in February, tweeting that Xi “President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation” on Feb. 7. On Feb. 10, Trump told a group of governors during a White House meeting that Xi “feels that … by April or during the month of April, the heath, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus.” 

That has not happened. For weeks, around 2,000 or more Americans have died each day this month. The CDC is continuing to confirm an additional 25,000-30,000 new cases each day. By Thursday afternoon, the U.S. had more than 856,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 47,272 known deaths nationwide.

Information on coronavirus prevention measures is available at the University of Mississippi Medical center’s website at umc.edu/coronavirus and at cdc.gov/coronavirus.

The Mississippi Free Press has an interactive map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state and one showing the number of ICU beds in counties across the state.

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