The US state of Missouri is suing China over its “appalling” response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak that is wreaking havoc across the world.
The lawsuit, filed by the state’s Republican Attorney-General, Eric Schmitt, seeks damages to make up for “the enormous loss of life, human suffering, and economic turmoil” resulting from the pandemic that started in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
It alleges Missouri and its residents have suffered possibly tens of billions of dollars in economic damages from the virus, and seeks cash compensation.
The lawsuit also accuses Beijing of making the pandemic worse by “hoarding” masks and other personal protective equipment for health workers.
“The Chinese government lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19, silenced whistleblowers, and did little to stop the spread of the disease,” Mr Schmitt said.
“They must be held accountable for their actions.”
He said COVID-19 had done irreparable damage across the world, bringing sickness, death, economic disruption, and human suffering.
More than 6000 people have been infected with the coronavirus in Missouri, and more than 220 had died by Tuesday (local time).
Across the US, which is one of the worst-hit countries, more than 45,000 people have died and more than 800,000 have been confirmed to have the deadly virus.
More than 22 million Americans have also lost their jobs in the shutdowns designed to slow the spread of the virus.
“In Missouri, the impact of the virus is very real – thousands have been infected and many have died, families have been separated from dying loved ones, small businesses are shuttering their doors, and those living pay cheque to pay cheque are struggling to put food on their table,” Mr Schmitt said.
US President Donald Trump initially praised China, and President Xi Jinping, for its official response to the coronavirus. But he and other senior US officials have also referred to it as the “Chinese virus” and have ramped up their rhetoric in recent days.
On Saturday, Mr Trump warned China it should face consequences if it was “knowingly responsible” for the pandemic.
“It could have been stopped in China before it started and it wasn’t, and the whole world is suffering because of it,” he said.
“If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, I mean, then sure there should be consequences.”
Last week, Mr Trump halted US funding to the World Health Organisation, after calling the organisation “China-centric”.
This is the first lawsuit filed by a US state. However, Reuters reports that China already faces similar actions filed on behalf of American business owners.
International law experts have told the agency that efforts in US courts to hold China liable for the virus are unlikely to succeed.
Missouri’s legal action also seeks to hold Beijing officially accountable for allegedly hiding the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent handling of the outbreak within its borders.
It claims “an appalling campaign of deceit, concealment, misfeasance, and inaction by Chinese authorities unleashed this pandemic”.
Other defendants in the Missouri action lawsuit include China’s National Health Commission, the municipal government of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.