Coronavirus outbreak: WHO is no scapegoat; Trump is justified in freezing funds for China’s geopolitical instrument that did little to contain spread of the pandemic

The novel coronavirus could have been stopped in its tracks multiple times had the WHO shown a little more spine in standing up to China

Sreemoy Talukdar April 17, 2020 18:33:42 IST
Coronavirus outbreak: WHO is no scapegoat; Trump is justified in freezing funds for China’s geopolitical instrument that did little to contain spread of the pandemic

Donald Trump has decided to freeze funding for the World Health Organisation amid the raging pandemic, holding the UN body responsible for not only failing at its job but worse, “severely mismanaging” the crisis and colluding with China to launder Beijing’s sins of omission and commission.

Trump has accused the WHO of deliberately misleading the world to provide covering fire for China, blamed it for putting “political correctness above lifesaving measures” and failing in the “basic duty” of adequately obtaining and sharing critical information “in a timely and transparent fashion”.

Coronavirus outbreak WHO is no scapegoat Trump is justified in freezing funds for Chinas geopolitical instrument that did little to contain spread of the pandemic

China is accused of withholding information about the virus. AP

At more than $400 million, the United States provides the WHO with 15% of its 2018-19 budget. Trump has announced that his administration is doing a “thorough investigation” into the workings of a “very China-centric” WHO and the funds would be withheld for a period of 60-90 days. This is going to hurt the organisation’s day-to-day functioning.

Predictably, Trump’s move has drawn swift and massive condemnation. World leaders have taken him to the cleaners. From Germany’s foreign minister, American Medical Association, European Union, Microsoft founder Bill Gates (whose foundation is the second-biggest donor to the WHO) to even China — the country that lies at the heart of this controversy — everyone is busy lashing at their favourite whipping boy.

US Media has accused the American president of trying to “shift the blame” and attempting to scapegoat WHO for his own sins. As always, any debate with Trump in the middle of it becomes so polarised that truth gets buried under the debris of rhetoric.

There is a grain of truth in these charges. Trump and his advisors have been guilty of not taking the coronavirus threat seriously until it was too late. The Trump administration’s testing strategy was wrong. The POTUS dragged his feet and tried to protect economic gains at the cost of human lives. ‘Shifting-the-blame’ is also Trump’s favourite political game. These are realities.

But any analysis must weigh the charges independent of political context. Trump’s incompetence does not detract from his criticism of the WHO. He is trying to deflect criticism for sure, but that does not make his core charges invalid. In fact, he deserves credit for highlighting the single biggest reason that brought the world to this precipice. Often, ideological opposition to Trump interferes with analysis of events. Trump’s motives may be dubious, but his current accusations have merit.

Coronavirus outbreak WHO is no scapegoat Trump is justified in freezing funds for Chinas geopolitical instrument that did little to contain spread of the pandemic

US president Donald Trump has withdrawn funding to the WHO. AP

There is clear evidence that the WHO is not only guilty of dereliction of duty but also malfeasance and malevolence. The WHO failed in its basic job of acting as the global gatekeeper. Its actions (or lack of it) helped spread the pandemic, eventually affecting over two 20 lakh people around the world, killing another 1,45,563 (and counting) and devastating world economy.

At a time when humanity is facing a great crisis, the WHO abdicated its role and acted as China’s geopolitical tool, led by a director-general who put politics before public safety, and whose allegiance towards China has resulted in tragic consequences. There must be some reckoning for this catastrophe.

As Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, writes in Politico magazine “Without China’s deceit and the WHO’s solicitude for Beijing, the outbreak might have been more limited, and the world at the very least would have had more time to react to the virus. China committed unforgivable sins of commission, affirmatively lying about the outbreak and punishing doctors and disappearing journalists who told the truth, whereas the WHO committed sins of omission — it lacked independence and courage at a moment of great consequence.”

In this piece, I shall attempt to piece together the many instances of the WHO’s failure, and the impact of those failures. It would be evident that the virus could have been stopped in its tracks multiple times had the WHO shown a little more spine in standing up to China.

I. Betraying global trust

There needs to be absolute clarity on the fact that COVID-19 infection wouldn’t have led to a pandemic (and its geographical spread could have been limited) had China been quick, honest and transparent in sharing data. ‘Patient zero’ — the first case of someone infected by COVID-19 — appeared on 17 November in Hubei province of China and positive cases proliferated in December.

By second week of January, as we shall see, China’s top leadership knew what they were up against. Beijing tried to hide the reality and put rigid controls on sharing of information, as authoritarian regimes do. The Chinese Communist Party’s priority was not public health but maintaining its image of being in total control at the cost of reality and human lives.

Even as the virus spread and people died, China tried to ‘manage’ the crisis until it became impossible to do so.

China was following its patent standard operating procedure one saw during the 2003 SARS outbreak. The experience of that crisis should have spurred the WHO into recognising the warning signs and apply pressure on China. The world has little faith on Chinese data and narrative. However, when that same narrative gets the WHO ratification, the game changes because the WHO draws its legitimacy from the implicit trust that nations put on it.

Many nations were misled into downplaying the COVID-19 threat precisely because the WHO, during the crucial first few weeks, swallowed and parroted China’s narrative hook, line and sinker — that the virus was not transferable from human to humans, the threat perception is low, China has it under control and there is no need to impose travel restrictions.

II. Epic blunder on human-to-human transmission

The WHO’s now infamous tweet on 14 January has been well-documented and discussed threadbare.

This single announcement, that lulled the world into a false sense of security when the pandemic was already raging in Wuhan, reflects the rot at the heart of the WHO. The UN body based its claim on Chinese data, and is therefore guilty of double deception. It is the WHO’s basic job to verify claims and it should have been doubly careful in trusting a malevolent actor who has a history of suppressing data and spreading false information. Instead, the WHO endorsed China’s lies.

A report by news agency AP indicates that by 14 January, the top Chinese leadership was aware that human-to-human transmission was happening. A secret memo, that was discussed during a confidential teleconference between China’s National Health Commission Ma Xiaowei and provincial health officials, reveals that President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Sun Chunlan were aware of cluster outbreak being caused by human-to-human transmission.

And yet, Li Qun, the head of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention told the Chinese public the next day that the “risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low". It wasn’t until 20 January that Xi finally sounded the alarm.

Coronavirus outbreak WHO is no scapegoat Trump is justified in freezing funds for Chinas geopolitical instrument that did little to contain spread of the pandemic

Chinese president Xi Jinping. AP

There is also data to show that doctors in Wuhan were aware by the second week of December that human to human transmissions were a reality.

New England Journal of Medicine notes “evidence that human-to-human transmission has occurred among close contacts since the middle of December 2019,” and points out that “there was an exponential increase in the number of nonlinked cases beginning in late December.”

On 30 December, Chinese doctor Li Wenliang sounded the first alarm by releasing online the initial evidence of the pathogen’s human transmission mechanism and warned his fellow medics. The police asked him to stop “making false comments”.

A day later, Taiwan alerted the WHO that human-to-human transmission was taking place in Wuhan. But the WHO ignored the warning. It is difficult to believe that the WHO all along remained blind to the reality. If it didn't, then it is guilty of collusion. But if it did was blind, then it is guilty of rank incompetence. Where it should have been alert and vigilant, the WHO displayed gullibility and remained in awe of China’s ‘achievements’. A statement by the WHO on 9 January stated that “Preliminary identification of a novel virus in a short period of time is a notable achievement and demonstrates China’s increased capacity to manage new outbreaks.”

It applauded Chinese scientists on 13 January for sequencing and making available the genetic material of this virus – “a remarkable achievement in such a short time". The timeline is significant.

While the WHO was busy praising China, The Lancet, a noted peer-reviewed medical journal, pointed out that “Chinese authorities ruled out SARS and MERS, as well as a few other non-coronaviruses, on 5 January, 2020, and confirmed a novel coronavirus as a potential cause on 9 January, 2020. However, the genome sequence — crucial for rapid development of diagnostics needed in an outbreak response — was not released until 12 January2, 2020, 17 days after the preliminary sequence data were obtained. These events raise challenging questions....”

III. Misleading the world on travel restrictions

In this case, the WHO acted as China’s force multiplier. On 10 January, the WHO advised other countries against imposing travel restrictions on China. Two days later, it repeated the same message.

The WHO’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has, on more than one occasion, warned nations against imposing travel bans on China that, according to him, increase “fear and stigma, with little public health benefit”.

Trump was bang on the money when he said: “WHO’s attack on travel restrictions put political correctness above lifesaving measures. Travel bans work for the same reason that quarantines work. Pandemics depend on human-to-human transmission. Border control is fundamental to virus control.”

The WHO’s failure in recommending travel restrictions led other nations into keeping their guard lowered, resulting in speedier spread of the COVID-19 disease. By the time Wuhan was locked down on 23 January, at least five million residents had left the city for Lunar New Year holidays.

Interestingly, while China fulminated against travel bans and quoted the WHO’s recommendations, the first thing that Beijing did after arresting the pandemic was to close its borders to international traffic to avoid second wave of transmissions.

IV. The Taiwan capitulation

Nothing captures the incompetence of the WHO more than the Taiwan issue. The island nation, that remains derecognised by the UN body in deference to Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy, was an outlier. Despite being so close to mainland China and fhigh degree of interconnectivity between the two nations, it managed to curb the contagion and reported only five deaths by 9 April and just 380 confirmed cases — a low number for a population of 23.6 million.

Taiwan was successful in its battle precisely because it paid no heed to WHO’s early efforts of downplaying the crisis and implemented a set of policies including proactive steps, aggressive screening and testing, contact tracing, quarantine and deployment of big data and technology. In its response, Taiwan has been guided by its experience during the SARS and MERS outbreaks.

Yet, Taiwan’s bid to help the world in the battle against coronavirus is hampered by WHO’s policy of denying membership to Taiwan in deference to China.

Taiwanese lawyer Yu-Jie Chen, a global academic fellow at Hong Kong University and an affiliated scholar at New York University and Jerome A Cohen, professor of law at NYU and founding director of the US-Asia Law Institute, point out that “Taiwan has continually shared coronavirus data with the WHO, but the WHO has never released this information to its members. Additionally, in a February coronavirus status report, the WHO misreported the number of cases in Taiwan based on information provided by China.... Taiwan’s exclusion is an example of how the world’s health body puts politics before public health.”

The botched-up interview where a high-ranking WHO official cut the phone line and then pretended not to hear a question on Taiwan has received global attention.

What has gone under the radar was the news conference on 14 April, where WHO Director-General Tedros launched a savage assault on Taiwan, accusing it of orchestrating a “racist attack” against him. Turns out that those “racist attacks” apparently were orchestrated by Chinese bots in a cyber campaign by Beijing to malign Taiwan. At a time when Taiwan has been at the forefront of fighting the pandemic, donating 1 crore masks to nations hit hardest by the pandemic, the WHO has been busy disseminating dubious and unverified information on Taiwan led by its chief Tedros.

As J Michael Cole of Canadian public policy think tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute points out, “at a time when Taiwan was doing what WHO officials have been urging – international cooperation – Tedros was targeting the island-nation with potentially damaging disinformation provided by Beijing.”

Coronavirus outbreak WHO is no scapegoat Trump is justified in freezing funds for Chinas geopolitical instrument that did little to contain spread of the pandemic

WHO chief

V. Other issues that expose WHO’s duplicity

Writing in Bloomberg, columnist Eli Lake points out that Trump’s penal action against WHO came after the organisation refused to entertain a single request among a few put forward by the US — including Taiwan’s participation in World Health Assembly, pressing China to provide US public health agencies with the complete set of early samples of the virus, and providing greater transparency into how the virus initially spread within China. “Only after Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declined these requests did Trump cut off of funding — in an attempt to pressure him to change his mind.”

If the WHO’s refusal appears perplexing, sample this. Sky News Australia has reported that during a WHO meeting in Geneva on 30 January, the organisation “blocked” requests from doctors and experts who wanted to issue a travel ban in response to COVID-19. There’s more. Daily Caller has reported that the WHO ignored suggestions from one of its own officials, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, who suspected human-to-human transmission “right from the start”. She was quoted by the newspaper, as saying: “Right from the start, from the first notification we received on the 31st of December, given that this was a cluster of pneumonia — I’m a MERS specialist, so my background is in coronaviruses and influenza — so immediately thought, given that this is a respiratory pathogen, that of course there may be human-to-human transmission.” Yet the WHO, at that stage, kept parroting China’s narrative despite evidence, advise and suggestions to the contrary.

The WHO is also guilty of taking inordinate amount of time in declaring coronavirus as PHEIC (public health emergency of international concern) that would have caused nations worldwide to take note. Instead, as Michael Collins, a research associate for Asia Studies at Council on Foreign Relations writes, “On 23 January, the WHO’s emergency committee was split on whether to declare a PHEIC. With final authority resting with the DG, Tedros decided to wait despite admitting that 'this is an emergency in China'. A week later, he declared a PHEIC. By that point, confirmed cases of COVID-19 had increased tenfold with 7,781 cases across 18 countries.”

VI. Bogus argument in defence of WHO

An argument has been put forward by some commentators that Tedros had to suck up to a superpower such as China at the cost of eroding the institution’s credibility to “get the job done”. This argument relies on the theory that since the WHO lacks enforcing authority, Tedros was busy flattering China since that’s the only way to get access, information and compliance. This is a bogus argument. There’s evidence instead to show that had the WHO pulled its weight instead of acting as a doormat, China would have acted differently.

In 2003 at the onset of SARS outbreak, then WHO DG Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, advocated travel ban to and from China. This was the first time the institution had issued such an advisory in 55 years. Brundtland also pulled up China for its secretive ways and for “endangering global health by attempting to cover up the outbreak through its usual playbook of arresting whistleblowers and censoring media”. China soon fell in line.

Despite not having powers to monitor or censure its members, as a Guardian report notes, “Brundtland wasn’t shy about doing so anyway. In the ensuing months she would accuse China of withholding information, claiming that the outbreak might have been contained ‘if the WHO had been able to help at an earlier stage’ and exhorting the Chinese to “let us come in as quickly as possible”. With remarkable speed, China fell in line and shared its data with the WHO.”

SARS could have been, but was nowhere near as deadly as coronavirus pandemic, largely due to timely action from the WHO. Brundtland’s actions are in sharp contrast with the inaction and procrastination showed by Tedros, and it busts the myth that the WHO must act as a doormat before superpowers. Trump’s move to withhold fund is more likely a pressure tactic to force the ‘China-centric’ Tedros to resign. The issue over timing is specious. The WHO’s missteps have already caused massive loss of human lives. The WHO deserves a better leader.

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