The World Health Organisation (WHO), founded to reduce health risks for all, is facing international criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. WHO’s Director-General (DG), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been accused of forwarding China’s interest rather than ensuring the containment of the virus through awareness procedures.
WHO’s assessment, finally characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11 March 2020, almost three months after its outbreak in Wuhan, China.
By then, there were already 118,332 confirmed cases globally with 4, 292 deaths. Coronavirus had already impacted people across 113 countries when the WHO declared it as a pandemic.
“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” claimed Dr Tredos in a media briefing.
Before this, the WHO announced a state of public health emergency on 30 January 2019, exactly a month after multiple cases of unknown ‘pneumonia’ were reported in China.
Two days before announcing this, Dr Tedros applauded China’s efforts to contain the outbreak and praised its leadership for ‘transparency’ and ‘willingness to share information’ with other countries. The praise was despite multiple reports on Communist Party of China officials suppressing the information about an outbreak of a new SARs-like virus, destroying proof, and denying evidence of community transmission. Dr Tedros, in fact, even praised China at the Munich Security Conference on 20 February 2020, for buying the world time to fight the disease. By 20 February, the virus had already created chaos in China, and was rapidly spreading across parts of Asia, Europe, Australia and North America.
Did WHO Fail Us?
The WHO categorises the threat of a pandemic flu into six different phases. These phases are low risk, high risk, limited human-to-human transition, high human-to-human transition, significant human-to-human transition, and sustained human-to-human transition. The first two categories are bracketed as ‘inter-pandemic’ phase, next three as ‘pandemic alert’, and the final one as ‘pandemic outbreak’. By 13 January, the coronavirus infections had started surfacing outside China.
WHO’s first emergency committee meeting on the virus, which was held on 23 January 2020, concluded that it was too early to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), or a pandemic outbreak. By then, infections were already noticed in 18 countries, with 7,781 confirmed cases.
The WHO had enough reasons and evidence to convey the first emergency committee meeting, at least a week before it was held. Primarily because of the approaching Chinese New Year, which witnesses mass gatherings and a massive flow of people in and out of China.
Around five million people left Wuhan before the lockdown, if conservative estimates are to be believed. If only the WHO had declared COVID-19 as a pandemic back in January, when evidence of human-to-human transmission existed, the situation probably would have been different now.
Countries around the world, alerted by WHO’s declaration, would have prepared policies, quarantine measures, and law enforcement strategies in time.
Adding to the list of recalcitrance, Dr Tredos, in early February, even claimed, “There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with travel or trade.” It was one of the most damaging statements in WHO’s series of mishaps while handling the crisis. It has been now proven that the early infections, which later escalated to community outbreaks, are due to international travel history.
WHO’s Politicisation – And China’s Increasing Power
China’s heft in the multilateral regimes has increased steadily since joining them in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It uses these organisations as an instrument, like most other countries, to forward its interests in the anarchic international world. For instance, it has periodically blocked Taiwan’s membership in the WHO, claiming it to be China’s sovereign territory. Not only in the WHO, but Beijing also blocks Taiwan from every international organisation, unless it conforms to the ‘One China’ principle, such as calling it the ‘Chinese Taipei’.
The increasing financial clout and dependencies on its manufacturing capabilities are slowly enabling China to dictate norms, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
Reasons Behind WHO’s Hesitance towards Declaring COVID-19 As a ‘Pandemic’ Early On
There are three reasons for WHO’s hesitance to declare the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic in the early stages. First, due to its dependence, as a global health governance body, on donor countries for its budgetary finances. China is amongst the top 20 contributors for the Programme budget and is the fifth largest voluntary contributor to the WHO. Its contribution has increased by 52 per cent since 2014. In 2017, China also committed for a new financial contribution to WHO under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is besides its much larger share of bilateral health contribution to smaller Asian and African countries.
The WHO-China ‘Relationship’?
Two, China supported Dr Tedros in his candidature as WHO’s DG. The Trump administration did not prefer Dr Tredos, but the developing countries, along with China, voted overwhelmingly in his favour. Immediately after re-election, he supported the ‘One China’ policy. These instances make one suspicious about his behaviour in handling the crisis.
Third, this is perhaps the first time that the WHO is dealing with a powerful country like China. During the SARS outbreak, China’s economic, diplomatic and military heft was much less than today. Today, it’s the second-largest economy in the world in nominal terms, and first in purchasing power parity; it has the largest military force, with second largest defence budget, and it has more diplomatic posts and embassies than any other country. Diplomatic posts and embassies are indicative of nurturing political relationships between the two countries.
There are serious questions on WHO’s role during the initial phase of the outbreak, as the world grapples with the lockdown due to COVID-19.
But these arguments reinforce the fact that states are using international and regional organisations as a tool of statecraft for forwarding their interests.
(Suyash Desai and Nischitha Suresh are research analysts with the Takshashila Institution, Bangalore. Twitter ids: @Suyash_desai @Nischitha4. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)