TANZANIA – The United States butted heads with China and Russia at the United Nations on Thursday over responsibility for the pandemic that has interrupted the world, trading allegations about who mishandled and politicized the virus in one of the few real-time exchanges among top officials at this year’s COVID-distanced U.N. General Assembly meeting.
The remarks at the U.N. Security Council’s ministerial meeting on the assembly’s sidelines came just after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decried the lack of international cooperation in tackling the still “out-of-control” coronavirus.
The sharp exchanges, at the end of a virtual meeting on “Post COVID-19 Global Governance,” reflected the deep divisions among the three veto-wielding council members that have escalated since the virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in January. They also crackled with an energy and action that the prerecorded set pieces of leader speeches at the virtual meeting have thus far lacked.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking first, stressed the importance of U.N.-centered multilateralism and alluded to countries — including the U.S. — opting out of making a COVID-19 vaccine a global public good available to people everywhere.
“In such a challenging moment, major countries are even more duty-bound to put the future of humankind first, discard Cold War mentality and ideological bias and come together in the spirit of partnership to tide over the difficulties,” Wang said.
And in a jab at U.S. and European Union sanctions including on Russia, Syria and others, he said: “Unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction needs to be opposed in order to safeguard the authority and sanctity of international law.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the pandemic and its “common misfortune did not iron out interstate differences, but to the contrary deepened them.”
“In a whole number of countries there is a temptation to look abroad for those who are responsible for their own internal problems,” he said. “And we see attempts on the part of individual countries to use the current situation in order to move forward their narrow interests of the moment in order to settle the score with the undesirable governments or geopolitical competitors.”
All that was too much for the United States’ U.N. ambassador, Kelly Craft, who opened her remarks late in the meeting with a blunt rejoinder.
“Shame on each of you. I am astonished and disgusted by the content of today’s discussion,” Craft said. She said some representatives were “squandering this opportunity for political purposes.”
“President Trump has made it very clear: We will do whatever is right, even if it’s unpopular, because, let me tell you what, this is not a popularity contest,” Craft said.
She quoted Trump’s speech Tuesday to the virtual opening of the General Assembly’s leaders meeting in which he said that to chart a better future, “we must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China.”
“The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to hide the origins of this virus, minimize its danger, and suppress scientific cooperation (that) transformed a local epidemic into a global pandemic,” Craft said, adding that these actions “prove that not all member states are equally committed to public health, transparency , and their international obligations.”
But she ended her remarks saying one lesson from the pandemic is the need for “unity, not division,” and calling for council members “to work together in transparency and in good faith.”
Chinese U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun asked for the floor at the end of the meeting and delivered a lengthy retort, saying “China resolutely opposes and rejects the baseless accusations by the United States.”
“Abusing the platform of the U.N. and its Security Council, the U.S. has been spreading political virus and disinformation, and creating confrontation and division,” Zhang said.
Zhang said: “The U.S. should understand that its failure in handling COVID-19 is totally its fault.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia expressed regret that Craft used Thursday’s meeting “to make unfounded accusations” against one council member. and quoting Lavrov saying the crisis has shown the need for “the interdependence, interconnectedness of all states without exception in all walks of life.”
Responding to Craft’s call for unity, he said, “It’s hard to disagree with that. But unfortunately, the crux of her statement, its form and its tone, do not correspond to that appeal at all.”
The United Nations chief said in opening the Security Council meeting that the world failed to cooperate in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. Guterres said that if the world responds to even more catastrophic challenges with the same disunity and disarray, “I fear the worst.”
He said the international community’s failure “was the result of a lack of global preparedness, cooperation, unity and solidarity.”
Guterres pointed to the nearly 1 million people around the world that the coronavirus has killed, the more than 30 million who have been infected.
He said the global response is more and more fragmented, and “as countries go in different directions, the virus goes in every direction.”
What is needed more, Guterres said, is a cooperation that not only involves nations but includes global and regional organizations, international financial institutions, trade alliances and others including the business community, civil society, cities and regions, academia and young people.
Lavrov also praised the World Health Organization for acting professionally and providing “effective preventive steps” to minimize the pandemic’s effect. U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the WHO, accusing the U.N. agency of being under Chinese influence.
Edith M. Lederer, chief U.N. correspondent for The Associated Press, has been covering world affairs for nearly a half-century. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EdithLedererAP