China and Russia are promoting "false narratives" on social media that blame the West for the coronavirus pandemic while casting their countries as best-equipped to deal with the crisis, U.S. officials say.
That message was voiced in Brussels on May 6 during a telephone press conference given by acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker and U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center Lea Gabrielle.
Gabrielle said Russia in particular was peddling conspiracy theories that blame the United States for the virus, which has infected more than 3.6 million people globally and killed over 258,000.
"Just to name some of Russia's most critically harmful narratives -- they've been using false narratives that the COVID-19 was produced by the U.S. as a bio-weapon. They've pushed out the false narrative that the U.S. and other Western governments have used efforts to contain [the outbreak] as part of a scheme to increase government control over their populations," Gabrielle explained.
She added that both Russia and China had tried to "push out false narratives" that the two countries "are global leaders in containing the virus, while the EU, NATO, and the U.S. are either unwilling or incapable of addressing" the epidemic.
Reeker said Russia had been engaging in such disinformation campaigns for some time.
He said Washington, as well as NATO, was paying more attention to the "cyber-realm" as it becomes a growing threat.
Gabrielle said China, where the coronavirus was first detected in December, was focusing on shaping the "global narrative" and "deflect[ing] blame" for the pandemic.
"So, we've now seen concerted efforts by Beijing to push conflicting theories about COVID-19 that are intended to sow doubt, to deflect blame, and to create the idea that it may not be possible to know the truth," Gabrielle said.
China is also "trying to push the narrative that it's superior to the West in responding to global health crises," she added.
Reeker also addressed the decision by President Donald Trump to suspend U.S. funding of the World Health Organization (WHO), a move criticized by world leaders. In making the announcement on April 15, Trump said the UN agency had "failed in its basic duty" in its response to the coronavirus outbreak.
"What we did was we had some great concerns about the WHO, how it's been used, and how it has failed in many aspects in dealing with this pandemic. That's not a new thing, there have been numerous efforts to reform the WHO just in the past decade. But WHO has done many good things around the world, of course, and the U.S. has been the largest funder of the WHO," Reeker said.
"So what we did was suspend payments at this point while we review exactly what has gone on there to make sure that certainly our money -- but, frankly, everybody else's -- is going to be used correctly and make the most of our investments into the health sector, particularly when it comes to COVID-19," he explained, stressing Washington would remain "very engaged" in battling the coronavirus.