A part of this answer got me wondering if another state can request compensations over the huge economical cost of SARS-CoV-2 epidemics:

(..) the region (HK, Singapore, SK?, China) was hit much harder during the 2003 SARS epidemic so spent more time getting prepared.

(..) it has long been the expectation that the next epidemic would come out of China, both due to population density and proximity to livestock/wild animals, so those countries could expect another "gift" from their Chinese neighbors.

Theoretically it can be argued that China could have tackle "the proximity to livestock/wild animals" to avoid another pandemic.

Is it possible for a country to ask for compensation over a pandemic started in another country. Or a pandemic is assimilated to a naturally occurring event regardless of context?

Question: Is it possible for a country to ask for compensation over damage done by SARS-CoV-2 epidemic that most likely started in China?

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    It's certainly possible to ask – but I assume you're thinking of some kind of stronger measure than a polite request? Are you thinking about some sort of legal mechanism to do this (sanctions, international law)? Or are you asking more about principles, whether we can say that China has a moral/political/legal responsibility to compensate other countries, even though politically it's extremely unlikely to occur?
    – divibisan
    Mar 27, 2020 at 14:51
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    @divibisan - I am thinking more in terms of international-law (or relations), not really sure because I am extremely unfamiliar with this part of politics.
    – Alexei
    Mar 27, 2020 at 14:53
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    Legally: No. The PRC is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and can veto any legally binding resolution of the UN. Mar 27, 2020 at 15:44
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    Also, if we were to make an analogy with individuals, the aparition of the virus is kind of an "act of god" and it would be hard to argue that China could have stopped it when lots of other countries that had advance warning have failed to stop it, too. Note that some pandemis like the swine flu have appeared in countries who do not have the same "proximity to livestock/wild animals".
    – SJuan76
    Mar 27, 2020 at 15:51
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    As the joke goes, you can ask for almost anything... in love and politics. Whether you'll actually get it... Mar 27, 2020 at 15:53

3 Answers 3


First, let's address the biological point. China is not 'responsible' for this novel coronavirus or the pandemic it is generating. Viruses are constantly mutating, and all it takes to begin an epidemic is for one person to encounter one animal that has a mutated strain of a virus, a strain which can jump species and start transmitting itself human to human. Humans are social creatures; they will have social contact and pass the strain on to others. Of course, being in a densely packed region with exposure to livestock increases the odds of that kind of encounter and maximizes the rate of transmission — lots of people nearby to infect, so the disease doesn't have to work its way outward — but that is a condition of poverty as much as anything else. People living on marginal incomes will pack together and bring their livestock with them, because they cannot afford the luxuries of personal space or shipped-in food.

And frankly, while poverty exacerbates diseases, it does not create them. The next pandemic could just as easily start because some well-to-do American on his country estate gets shat on by an infected bird. Novel infections are a natural phenomenon. We are not immune to the workings of nature (despite our pretensions) so epidemics will happen on a rare but regular basis. Blaming a particular region for a pandemic is like blaming your neighbor because you got crabgrass in your lawn. Crabgrass doesn't know, or care, whose lawn it is.

This 'neighbor' example is a good analogy for the problem this question faces. Currently, all states are treated as sovereign, like a neighborhood of houses in which each homeowner has absolute say over what he gets to do with his house and yard. There is no overarching governance: no courts, no police, no administrators, no higher authority to appeal to, to force a neighbor to do this or that on his property. The UN is like a town hall in which people come together to argue and make resolutions, but it has no real teeth except as individual sovereigns agree to abide by its decisions. This leaves only a few options on the table:

  • Shrug and ignore what other sovereign homeowners do on their own turf, implicitly accepting the bad things that might float over the fence into one's own yard (i.e., the status quo).
  • Try to create agreements that commit all parties to certain kinds of behavior (i.e. pacts and treaties): a slow and difficult process to begin with, and one that any sovereign can back out of at any convenient-for-them time.
  • Restrict the ability of particular sovereign homeowners to interact with the community, in the hopes that deprivation will force them into compliance (i.e., sanctions, embargoes, etc.).
  • Create independent, unaligned groups that ask permission to enter another's sovereign territory to solve particular problems before they spread (i.e, NGO's and such). Note that sovereign homeowners are under no obligation to allow such groups access, and can interfere with such groups' work in any way they desire.
  • Force your way onto another's sovereign territory to solve the problem against that sovereign's will (i.e., war).

So long as we maintain the decrepit ideal of sovereign nations, there's not much we can do to prevent the spread of a disease through a nation and across its borders. There is nothing at all we can do to prevent the birth of a novel disease. And unless we are willing to address underlying social issues like poverty and overpopulation, we are as much to blame as anyone else for pandemics of this sort, so there is no point in trying to collect 'compensation' for some imagined wrongdoing we project onto others.

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    decrepit ideal of sovereign nations? As someone usually inclined towards international collaboration myself I find this statement deeply worrying. Puts one right into the globalist scare-mongering frequent on Fox News et all. One extremely important facet of sovereign nations is experimentation - if there was one decision-making body for the whole world, then suboptimal solutions could be decided on and become permanent. Whereas independent nations can try different ideas - some will work, some will fail (Venezuela, looking at you). Ditching this in the name of world whatever? Daft. Mar 27, 2020 at 21:31
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: I'm not sure this is the correct place for a political theory roundtable. But I'll note in passing that the notion of a nation-state is derived from the primitive concept of kingship, in which the land and people 'belong' to the king. All it does is replace the body of the king with a corporate body (a ruling party, a branched government, or etc); but that corporate body still has feudal power over the mass of citizenry. Mar 27, 2020 at 22:50
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    Re: "There is no overarching governance: no courts, no police, no administrators, no higher authority to appeal to" This is fundamentally incorrect. There's no such thing for the UNSC permanent security members because they can veto any measure they don't like. The other countries are effectively policed by the UNSC which can impose sanctions and what not. Ask Iran, North Korea etc. what it means to find yourself at the barrel end of UNSC resolutions. Mar 28, 2020 at 12:14
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    You missed my point. Discrete countries (and I am all for collaboration here) are like evolution. Some ideas work, some don't. If a particularly nasty one comes around (NK, Nazis) then other countries band against it. Or its own citizens see greener grass. You may think of world government as automatically better. It might be, but what if, to riff on evolution, wise men did intelligent design and chose wrong? Picking scientific socialism, i.e. marxism? Imagine a world trapped forever in communism because there are no competing ideas. Or in capitalism, if that's your bugbear. Mar 28, 2020 at 20:57
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    Despite my user name I am originally French. France has a lot of ideas it considers really clever. Take for example their longtime habit (not sure if still around) of giving young students Wednesdays off and schooling them instead on Saturday mornings. It's about as stupid as it sounds, but they have tons of experts saying it's a good idea. I really, really, feel uncomfortable about a government that can decide on behalf of the whole world for exactly this kind of reason. Without counterexamples of better governance you better hope you don't ever end up with dud decision makers. Mar 28, 2020 at 21:06

The case you are making here closely parallels the demands that industrialized nations pay for the global damages caused by climate change. That campaign keeps some activists busy, but it is not an accepted principle of international law yet.

Follow-Up: Some commenters think it is no parallel because climate change is much more predictable and the cause and effect are established beyond reasonable doubt. But if even that causes no compensation claim under international law, why should it be a low-probability event like a virus jumping species?

  • This comparison was my first thought as well.
    – M i ech
    Mar 27, 2020 at 15:11
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    No, it is not parallel at all. Damages due to global warming are deliberate acts. New diseases, or ones which cross species lines, are simply nature going about its business. For instance AIDS, the Ebola virus, and MERS are all examples of zoonotic diseases (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoonosis ) that didn't originate in China.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 27, 2020 at 17:47
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    Yes, that was my thought as well. Except that China might have foreseen this and cleaned up its food hygiene practices, at relatively low cost. But it wasn't a deterministic outcome. Global warming on the other hand is a pretty certain outcome but mitigation/prevention is way harder than closing live animal markets. All in all, I don't see the idea of damages getting any legal traction at this point, the notion of national sovereignty is too vested. And, as you noted, even countries that like to blame China for everything under the sun will be wary of setting a precedent. Mar 27, 2020 at 21:24
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    @Italian Philosophers 4 Monica: I don't know enough to comment on whether the Covid-19 virus was a simple matter of food hygiene or not, but just as a practical matter, unless you're going to force everyone to live in an urban bubble, people are still going to come into contact with animals. Even in those urban bubbles, there are plenty of pigeons, rats, cockroaches, and the like :-(
    – jamesqf
    Mar 28, 2020 at 4:06
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    +1 The comparison is not as inept as some commenters might make it. Industrialized countries can claim they didn't know the extent of the problem they'd cause 100 years later. (The so-called industrialized countries aren't that industrialized nowadays, with the production having massively moved to China.) China likewise can claim that cross-species virus transfers are sometimes a naturally occurring phenomenon but in some jurisdictions there's apportionment of blame for negligence, i.e. it's not a black or white matter. Mar 28, 2020 at 12:11

A more case-law-based answer:

The IHR [International Health Regulations (2005)] contains a dispute settlement provision, so a state party could advance legal claims that China violated the IHR and, under principles of state responsibility, has an obligation to make reparation for the damage caused by that wrongful act. However, countries have never used the dispute settlement provisions in infectious disease treaties from the nineteenth century through today — another indication that states have no interest in legal remedies in this area. [...]

Any pursuit of a claim against China under the principles of state responsibility would also have difficulty with the causation element of those rules. The [UN] International Law Commission has explained that the causation requirement focuses on “the injury from and ascribable to the wrongful act, rather than any and all consequences flowing from an intentionally wrongful act.” Thus, whatever reparation China might owe under these principles likely does not encompass the trillions of dollars of damage associated with the outbreak. What’s more, as commentary has noted, many countries now struggling with COVID-19 had time to prepare for the pathogen’s transboundary spread after China reported its outbreak under the IHR. Under the principles of state responsibility, separating what damage is attributable to China’s delayed reporting and what harms arose because other governments botched their responses to COVID-19 would be difficult. Such causation issues also help explain why states have, historically, not pursued reparations for damage associated with alleged violations of treaties on infectious diseases.

Note that this strictly from an international law perspective. There are several efforts in the US to sue China domestically, under US law, lawsuits which are mostly hampered by FSIA. (But there is precedent in bypassing that by Congressional amendment in the case of lawsuits against Saudi Arabia for 9/11 [JASTA] and there are some similar amendments being advanced now, targeting China.) I won't get to the details on that here since you commented that "I am thinking more in terms of international-law".

Outside of that realm of lawsuits, Trump has recently (sort of) threatened China with more sanctions for Covid-19:

“We signed a trade deal where they’re supposed to buy, and they’ve been buying a lot, actually. But that now becomes secondary to what took place with the virus,” Trump told reporters. “The virus situation is just not acceptable.” [...]

Asked whether he would consider having the United States stop payment of its debt obligations as a way to punish Beijing, Trump said: “Well, I can do it differently. I can do the same thing, but even for more money, just by putting on tariffs. So, I don’t have to do that.”

As with all such [tariff] measures, there could be tit-for-tat retaliation from China.

Also, both Congress and the administration seem somewhat divided on how exactly to punish China, so immediate action is not expected. (On that [speed-of-action] note, the lawsuits against Saudi Arabia for 9/11 are still, slowly making their way through the US courts. So even if those against China were allowed to proceed, they probably won't be over quickly. On the other hand, tariffs could be [re]imposed fast.)

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