Can the WHO Restore Credibility After Its Handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic suggests that the WHO will have to revisit its response to the crisis once it is finally over.
Hans-Georg Betz, WHO face masks guidelines, Trump WHO funding, US WHO funding, WHO donor countries, China WHO contribution, COVID-19 WHO advice, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus WHO, do masks help against COVID-19, coronavirus WHO advice

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Brussels, Belgium, 9/12/2019 © Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

A few days ago, President Donald Trump came out and announced that the United States was suspending its funding of the World Health Organization (WHO). Among the main reasons for his decision, Trump cited the WHO’s “mismanaging” of the spread of the epidemic and its heavy pro-China slant. The United States is the most important contributor to the WHO’s budget, way ahead of China, Japan and Germany. The end of American contributions would deprive the WHO of a fifth of its funds.

Trump’s announcement provoked a global outcry and widespread condemnation. The Guardian called it “an extraordinary act of moral abdication and international vandalism at a time when the world desperately needs to find means of working together to combat an unprecedented global threat.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was more measured, noting that “now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences.” Leaders of EU countries were swift in coming out in support of the WHO, pledging they would do whatever they could to support its efforts to deal with the crisis.


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The response is understandable, but also misleading. To be sure, Trump’s anti-WHO campaign is largely intended to deflect from his own abysmal response to the crisis. For weeks, his administration wasted precious time to prepare the United States for what was bound to come. For weeks, the president belittled and trivialized the extent of the threat, claiming that the United States was fully prepared to deal with its impact.

As it turned out, it was not, and Trump should be held fully responsible for what he said — and failed to do. As should be all of his toadies and acolytes in Congress and the right-wing media who went out of their way to dismiss COVID-19 as a “hoax” fabricated by the liberal media and the Democrats in order to damage the president. As it turned out, COVID-19 was anything but a hoax, and if anybody did damage the president’s image, it was Trump himself.

Beijing’s Bidding

All of these things are public knowledge. Yet when it comes to the WHO, Trump, unfortunately, has a point. As the German news magazine Der Spiegel has recently pointed out, the WHO is hardly the impartial organization one would expect — as the magazine puts it, the WHO has a “China problem.” Under its general secretary, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, the WHO appears to have become less impartial — and more politicized — than one would expect from an international body. According to Der Spiegel, in the first weeks after the outbreak of the epidemic in Wuhan, the WHO systematically played down its potential extent, largely, one might suspect, in line with Beijing’s concerns about the impact of a crisis on its economy and, particularly, export trade.

In late January, for instance, the organization’s official website stated that it advised “that measures to limit the risk of exportation or importation of the disease should be implemented, without unnecessary restrictions of international traffic.” A week or so later, the secretary general of the WHO went on record charging that there “was no need for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.” These are hardly recommendations that fall into the prerogatives of the WHO. Worse, it has opened the organization vulnerable to the not entirely unreasonable charge that it was doing Beijing’s bidding.

This appears to have allowed Trump to claim that the WHO objected to his January 31 decision to impose a travel ban on flights from and to China. In fact, there never appears to have been any official objection on the part of the WHO — given that the US was one among a number of countries, such as Italy, to impose similar travel restrictions.

This does not mean that the grievances advanced by Trump are not without merit. As the major contributor to the WHO’s annual budget, the United States deserves to be taken seriously, its concerns recognized and respected. As Der Spiegel points out, under Tedros’s predecessor, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, the WHO’s relationship with China was significantly more confrontational. In 2002, at the beginning of the SARS outbreak, Brundtland publicly chastised the Chinese authorities for having failed to inform the WHO about the outbreak in a timely fashion.

Eighteen years later, the head of the WHO effusively praised China for its response to the COVID-19 crisis without even mentioning Beijing’s initial suppressing of the information. By then, the virus had already been spread by Chinese tourists in Europe and North America, and by European and North American travelers returning home from China. (The first instances of confirmed COVID-19 infections in Italy were detected at the end of December: two Chinese tourists in Rome and one Italian minor returning from a visit to China to Veneto). In the weeks that followed, the epidemic spread to large parts of northern Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Germany, as well as northern California and the state of New York.

None of this is necessarily the fault of the WHO. European authorities proved as unprepared and, quite frankly, callous and irresponsible as their counterparts in the United States. In Italy, for instance, in late February, the leader of the governing left-wing Democratic Party, Nicola Zingaretti, invited young people in Milan to an aperitivo and a pizza dinner in support of the party’s “Milano non si ferma” (Milan does not stop) initiative. At the time, there were about 400 confirmed cases in Italy. A few days later, Zingaretti announced that he had contracted the virus. He ultimately recovered.

Impact of Globalization

Few political leaders fully appreciated the impact of globalization, which has allowed the rapid spread of the virus. Yet Europeans should not have been surprised. After all, the Black Death, which took a terrible toll on large parts of Europe’s population in the mid-1300s, was intricately linked to the expanding trade routes that linked Asia with Europe along the Silk Road. The plague was introduced to Europe by Genovese traders from their outpost in Caffa on the shores of the Black Sea. From there, they unwittingly spread it to ports along both sides of the Mediterranean Sea.

By the time the good citizens of Marseilles got a glimpse of the horror, it was too late. The disease then traveled up north, spreading across the continent. A few years later, millions of people had died from the disease, wiping out entire villages and towns — an estimated one-third of Europe’s population.

For the inhabitants of Bergamo, one of the hotspots of COVID-19 in northern Italy, 14th-century history is a bit more than a “distant mirror” considering the death toll exerted by the current disease. As late as the end of February, Italian authorities urged tourists and business people to come to Italy, assuring them that it was perfectly safe. A few days later, Italy was subjected to a lockdown after a dramatic surge in deaths caused by the disease.

None of this is the fault of the WHO. The WHO, like everybody else, obviously was caught unprepared by the speed and extent with which the epidemic would spread across the globe. It should, however, be faulted for two things. First, for its more than cautious and accommodating take on what was happening in China. There can be no doubt that at the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, for whatever reasons, local and national Chinese authorities did everything to hush it up. It was only when the news could no longer be suppressed that they did everything to contain its potential impact. The WHO played along: Instead of asking for clarification with respect to the delay, the WHO’s general secretary praised the belated response of Chinese authorities.

Second, and even more seriously, the WHO has been more than reluctant to acknowledge the central importance of protective face masks in containing the spread of the virus. By now, it is well established that face masks are useful primarily because they reduce the likelihood that somebody without symptoms unwittingly transmits the virus. Yet for weeks, the WHO recommended that only those sick with COVID-19 or caring for someone who is sick should wear masks. In fact, a top WHO official claimed at the time that there was “no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly.”

A few weeks later, a growing number of countries, such as Austria, made the easing of the lockdown contingent on the wearing of masks. Others, such as Switzerland and Germany, are likely to follow, if only to get their economies back on track. To be sure, the WHO’s recommendation was based less on the potential benefits of wearing masks than on the fact that in most countries, there were no masks to be had — at least for the general public.

Even health-sector leaders like Switzerland had long ago ceased to produce basic equipment such as protective masks for the simple reason that is was no longer profitable. Given the reality that a sufficient number of masks was generally only available to medical staff, there was a reasonable fear that ordinary people would “hoard” whatever was still to be had — as they certainly did with toilet paper — thus depriving medical personnel of vital equipment. At the same time, however, the WHO’s recommendation undermined its own reputation when national governments started to reverse course and advocated, if not mandated, the use of protective masks for ordinary citizens in public spaces.

Fundamental Challenge

What all of this suggests is that the WHO is faced with a fundamental challenge of how to reconcile the fact that most of its funds come from advanced industrial countries — the US, Japan, Germany — but its mandate is global, addressing primarily the needs of the poor south. Here, the WHO is hardly unique. International cooperation depends to a large degree on the willingness of the rich north to share a part of its wealth with those less fortunate.

The recent history of the European Union shows that international cooperation remains challenging. Greece in the years following 2008 or Italy today are reminders that solidarity, even among partners in Europe, is a scarce commodity. In the end, national interests tend to prevail over common ideals. Countries that contribute a lion’s share of the common budget have a tendency to want to be in control. From this perspective, Trump’s visceral decision to suspend payments to the WHO is perfectly reasonable, even if it goes against basic moral sensitivities.

The fallout from the current crisis suggests that after it is finally over, the WHO will have to revisit its response to the coronavirus pandemic. But so too will most Western countries, which, unlike Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, were completely unprepared for it. As a recent article in The Telegraph noted, the latter were prepared because they had followed earlier recommendations by the WHO.  These were countries that in 2003 had been exposed to the SARS epidemic. Scarred by the experience, they looked to the WHO for advice on how to meet such an emergency. It is to be hoped that the experience of the current crisis will convince countries in Europe and overseas to not only avail themselves of the expertise the WHO clearly has to offer but also follow its recommendations.

This, however, presupposes that the WHO is able to restore its credibility and overall image, which have suffered considerably over the past several months. If the current crisis has shown one thing, it is the dire need for an institution that is competent, impartial and effective enough to serve as a focal point of gathering information from, and distributing information to, member states and can act as a center of coordination of the various individual initiatives and innovations provoked by a crisis.  

The shock provoked by Trump’s rash action and the response by the rest of the world community in support of the WHO are important steps in the right direction. As The Telegraph notes, given its intellectual resources and expertise, the WHO is uniquely positioned to fulfill an essential role — provided there is a willingness on the part of individual states to cooperate in a crisis and heed the WHO’s recommendations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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