NZ 'not interested in a witch hunt' as country joins call for inquiry into COVID-19's origins

coronavirus 18/05/2020

New Zealand has reportedly become one of 62 nations backing Australia's call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus - but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has reiterated that the country is "not interested" in placing blame or joining a "witch hunt" amid the increasing calls for answers from China.

Speaking to The AM Show on Monday, Ardern addressed a report by The Australian claiming that New Zealand is backing Australia's call for the World Health Organization (WHO) to "initiate an impartial, independent, comprehensive evaluation" into the origins of COVID-19. 

The deadly disease, which has killed more than 314,000 people worldwide, is widely believed to have originated in Wuhan, a city in China's Hubei Province in which the first reported cases of COVID-19 emerged in December. Despite theories that the virus was transmitted from animals to humans, the exact cause of the outbreak and the disease's inception remains unclear.

Ardern says New Zealand is "part of a sensible call" which will allow us to "learn what we can" from the pandemic.

"I think everyone would be of the view that if we want to prevent this from happening again, we do need to learn lessons," she told The AM Show host Ryan Bridge.

"What I am very clear on is that we're not interested in blame or any kind of witch hunt - we're just interested in learning and I think most New Zealanders would agree with that."

Bridge questioned why Ardern had not mentioned China in her response, acknowledging reports that the word "China" has been removed from the inquiry's draft. 

Ardern swiftly said she had no comment as she is not involved in the drafting process.

"I think there are things to learn from other countries' responses [and] I would include China in that - they were obviously the first to use lockdown and I think that has saved lives globally.

"Equally I've also said there are other places we can learn from, and we've included Taiwan in that... for us, we take a very pragmatic view. We need to learn, but we're not interested in blame."

Ardern's comments follow a terse back-and-forth exchange between Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters and Chinese officials last week. After airing his "personal" view that Taiwan - considered by the Communist Party of China (CCP) as the Republic of China and an extension of Chinese territory - should be given a seat at the WHO's table, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry rebuked New Zealand for violating the "one China" policy. 

"We express our strong dissatisfaction with the statements and resolutely oppose it, and we have already made stern representations with New Zealand," the spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said during a news conference in Beijing.

"China urges New Zealand to strictly abide by the 'one China' principle and immediately stop making wrong statements on Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship."

In an interview with Magic Talk host Peter Williams, Peters flatly denied the possibility of New Zealand's relations with China being under stress in the aftermath of his comments. Last Monday, China threatened Australia with an 80 percent tariff on barley imports, the move coming within weeks of the country's call for the probe into COVID-19's origins. This recent development is an example of the CCP's tendency to "bully" its trading partners, Williams said, suggesting it may not be a wise tactic to inflame an already tense relationship with New Zealand's biggest trading partner.  

"I have framed the conversation to say this humanitarian disaster deserves a worldwide answer... on where COVID-19 came from, it's inconceivable that if you want to help the world, that you wouldn't find out every detail of how it came in the first place... if we [have to have] a disagreement with the Chinese people on that, so be it," Peters said.

"All I'm saying is, when we are going to be fighting a worldwide enemy called COVID-19, we need the best resources of every population - particularly one that has had a stand-out success record like Taiwan."

When asked by Bridge if she believed China had hidden the true origins of COVID-19 in an elaborate cover-up, Ardern said it was not a theory she had spent much time thinking about. 

"To be honest, that's not something I've spent a huge amount of time in recent weeks or months delving into," she told Bridge. 

"There are others I think would be better placed to look into the passage of time, what happened, [its] origins - we have supported looking into those issues independently but again, not for the purposes of a witch hunt - just for learning.

"I'm careful about the advice I receive but I'm speaking quite frankly, it's not something I've spent much time on... supporting that independent look into what has happened I think is the best way and the best forum for us to have these conversations, rather than just the reckons of one country or one person."

In an article published on Monday, The Australian reported: "A draft resolution calling for impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of the responses to the pandemic has been co-sponsored by 62 countries, including India, Japan, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Indonesia, Russia and all 27 EU member states".

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said it's crucial to review the events of this year to avoid a repeat pandemic in the future.

"There is positive support for an independent review into the pandemic to help the world learn the lessons necessary to protect global health," Senator Payne told The Australian.

"This is about collaborating to equip the international community to better prevent or counter the next pandemic and keep our citizens safe."