The WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has shown an evident bias to accept Chinese declarations and denials at face value - this has created a delay in international responses.. This in spite of a very limited Chinese contribution to WHO, but it matches the weakness of other UN organizations in the face of China’s powerful campaigning. As China itself has reversed course on the epidemic, the WHO becomes once more an irreplaceable tool in health emergencies.
Timeline of WHO actions
January 14, 2020 - Endorses the preliminary investigation conclusion by the Chinese authorities that there is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission
January 23, 2020 - Recognises human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 and recommends airport exit screening. WHO’s Emergency Committee meets for the first time
February 4, 2020 - Pledges to share information with governments
February 7, 2020 - Highlights the global shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
February 12, 2020 - Publishes Operational planning guidelines for countries
February 20, 2020 - Warns that the window of opportunity “may close”
February 24, 2020 - Recognises potential of a pandemic
February 27, 2020 - Lists “vital questions” for health ministers
February 28, 2020 - Releases “Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019”
March 5, 2020 - Recommends wide testing
March 11, 2020 - Announces a pandemic
Can the World Health Organization (WHO) be better than the member states of the United Nations that ultimately have a considerable say on its operations? This is a question that has peaked with the coincidence of rising Chinese influence inside the UN system, and the appearance of a pandemic that by all reasonable accounts has started in China. These questions have been made more acute by the lavish praise of China’s behavior from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
WHO is a key UN organization – with a projected base budget (excluding polio and some other special programs) of 3,8 billion $ in 2020 and a major role in recommending, coordinating and assisting both the prevention and the treatment of major health issues. It is also a frequent subject of potential controversy at times of epidemics, because its role, success and failures will then be scrutinized and occasionally scapegoated. It was accused of being very late in declaring an epidemic over the Ebola outbreak in Africa, and earlier of being slow to recognize SARS as well.
DG Tedros’ permanent and forceful endorsement of Chinese actions throughout the crisis has, of course, created a counter-reaction: the organization itself is now accused of having missed the opportunity to forestall a global pandemic. This is the result of two decisions. First, WHO’s failure to recognize proven human-to-human contamination until January 23 (and going along on January 14 with China’s refusal to admit human to human contamination), despite strong and persistent indications to the contrary, and alerts by Taiwanese health officials directly conveyed to the WHO. Second, the organization’s refusal to declare a pandemic until March 11, when 114 countries had already reported 118,000 cases. These decisions have had global consequences, as WHO guidelines are for better or for worse followed by countries and even by private actors who can base – and later justify – their actions from these guidelines. Such was the case for example in France, where public authorities were still saying there was no proof of human to human contamination on January 20. Beyond the issue of what WHO can do at times of epidemics, there is a ripple effect from its statements.
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