WHO's mishandling of COVID-19 pandemic raises questions about its relevance
The WHO has not covered itself in glory in its response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, with many feeling that the organization could have saved thousands of lives by acting much quicker when it came to declaring it a global health emergency.
The criticism, that has been copping from numerous quarters wasn't the worst of it, however. Fed up with its perceived incompetency, the US, which has been one of its biggest critics since Donald Trump came to power in 2017, went ahead in halting its considerable funding to the organization earlier this week.
In a press conference, the president confirmed the US would be withdrawing nearly $500 million of support, and accused the WHO of "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus."
"They’ve been wrong about a lot of things," he had said. "And they had a lot of information early and they didn’t want to – they seemed to be very China-centric."
Despite Trump's propensity to make mountains out of molehills, it was an allegation that one would find hard to refute taking into consideration the events of the past few months, from the start of the COVID-19 outbreak to the global crisis it is today.
Back in January, when the coronavirus was still confined to the borders of China, a Berkeley research scientist named Xiao Qiang who was monitoring China's official statements about the outbreak noticed a disturbing trend: statements made by the WHO echoed China's messages to the T.
"Particularly at the beginning, it was shocking when I, again and again, saw WHO’s [director-general], when he spoke to the press … almost directly quoting what I read on the Chinese government’s statements," he said.
The most damning piece of evidence came in the form of a now-infamous tweet from the WHO account on January 14 that read, "Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus."
The tweet came out on the same day the Wuhan Health Commission’s public bulletin declared they had found no evidence of human-to-human transmission. As per documents, it was also the same day that top officials in the country were warned they were dealing with a major health crisis.
The head of China's National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, had painted a grim assessment of the situation and stated that the situation was "severe and complex" and "the most severe challenge since SARS in 2003."
There was also evidence that the virus had traveled abroad to Thailand, but in public, officials still parrotted a rosy outlook. The WHO did the same.
By the time Chinese President Xi Jinping finally warned the public on January 20 that the outbreak "must be taken seriously," the virus had already silently swept through thousands thanks to a combination of Wuhan being a travel hub, and the Lunar New Year celebrations that saw millions travel across the country, and the world.
That misstep has already affected millions. According to Johns Hopkins University's live-tracking dashboard, the coronavirus has infected more than two million worldwide and caused over 138,000 deaths. That number will only increase in the coming weeks.
The increasingly embattled current WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is taking the heat for his organization's mismanagement. In an impassioned briefing last week, he asked for global solidarity and asked the WHO's member countries to stop politicizing the pandemic.
It's difficult advice to follow when the organization pleading for cooperation is actively partaking in the very thing they are damning.
Take the Western African Ebola virus epidemic of 2013-2016 that was the most widespread outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in history and claimed over 11,000 lives, mainly in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
In 2015, a panel of experts looking into ways to prevent small outbreaks from becoming pandemics criticized the WHO Ebola Interim Assessment Panel and said they delayed responses because of worries about political resistance from the Western African leaders and economic consequences.
If that rings a bell, it's because history does have an uncanny way of repeating itself. In February 2020, when the virus had already killed 361 people in China, Adhanom insisted there was no need for measures like worldwide travel restrictions because they would "unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade."
But at this point, how much can the WHO be blamed in itself for what is quite apparently a systemic dysfunctionality?
Set up in 1948 as a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health, the organization's biggest strength may just be its biggest weakness as well. Its global influence can be traced to the fact that it is comprised of all 194 member nations of the UN, but, at the same time, it relies on these member nations for information as well.
The WHO team that visited China to evaluate the country's response to the pandemic in February did so jointly with Chinese representatives, which may explain why the resulting report praised the country's "bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic." And herein lies the problem.
While transparent democracies are members of the WHO, so are authoritarian states. North Korea, for example, has reported zero cases of the COVID-19, and the WHO can't do anything to refute it. It's the classic, 'You're only as strong as your weakest link' problem.
Detractors will question the relevancy of the organization. Indeed, since its foundation more than seven decades ago, nearly 200 new entities have come into existence with a strong focus on global health.
But none of these have the so-called "cooperation" of the entire world like the WHO does, and none have the resources or clout to manage a pandemic of this scale.
There is little question that the WHO is in dire need of a shake-up, but for now, sticking a bandaid will have to do.
Adhanom needs to start by restoring the public's faith in what was once a highly-reputed organization, and that's something that will only come with the containment of what is undoubtedly, the threat of the century.