As the Trump administration halted funding for the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO), there is a lot to reflect on this relationship. Numerous experts have pointed out that although WHO is far from being a perfect organisation, it is the one playing a vital role of international response to the pandemic. Others say it had little to do with slow response of America or other Western countries. In fact, the Trump administration and WHO are equally blameable.
It is absolutely true that Trump is looking for a scapegoat. In fact, that is what most politicians do, while trying to salvage their name from being associated with tremendous mismanagement. Trump’s dissatisfaction is not alone, Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso suggested renaming WHO to Chinese Health Organisation.
According to ABC News, US secret intelligence identified the spread of the novel virus as early as late November, warning about its threat to humans. The National Centre for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) is said to have compiled a report, which was a “result of analysis of wire and computer intercept, coupled with satellite images”. Primarily, it raised alarm, because it was threatening US forces in Asia. It is said to have later been briefed “multiple times” to the Defence Intelligence Agency, however, the Pentagon and NCMI deny that such “product/assessment” existed. Despite that, it is highly possible for the report to be true, since the late Li Wenliang began warning others in December. In addition, the briefings are said to have culminated “with a detailed explanation of the problem that appeared in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) of intelligence matters in early January. Because of the nature of work, for something to appear in PDB there had to be weeks of analysis. Already that analysis informed experts about China’s inability to control the spread and its hiding information from foreign governments and public health agencies.
The possible denial of the existence of the report could be another attempt for Trump’s administration to remain dry. Especially considering that the 2017 “Pentagon Plan” mentioned a risk of possible respiratory disease of influenza type, since such infections are common around the world. Denis Kaufmann, a former head of the Infectious Diseases and Countermeasures Division, said that the intelligence community has been warning about coronaviruses for at least five years. It is also known that in 2018, US officials briefed Washington about the danger of Wuhan's virology lab, which conducted research on bats’ coronaviruses.
Moreover, already in 2017 there was caution that the US Strategic National Stockpile of medical equipment was “nearly depleted”. The time was not used wisely, neither in 2017-2020, nor in February. For this Trump was justly grilled by a reporter and indeed it was not WHO’s fault that several independent warnings were ignored. Lastly, the US failed to prepare domestically, completely relying on travel bans.
However, the uselessness of the WHO lays in its political nature. Bloomberg pointed out that WHO is just “a painfully slow bureaucracy … [with] a hypersensitivity to the political needs of member states. Besides its relatively small budget, it is forced to rely on the information from its member states and cannot operate without their permission. When Wuhan health officials announced the discovery of a viral pneumonia, on 31 December 2019, Taiwan, a nation not recognised by the WHO, wrote to the organisation requiring further information about the virus. WHO did not respond. Despite that, Taiwan on the same 31 December started examining all passengers arriving from Wuhan.
The WHO, on the other hand, waited 9 days to issue its first statement. It reported that “the virus does not transmit readily from person to person”. In addition: “WHO does not recommend any specific measures for travellers. WHO advises against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China”. The same was said on 3 February. An utterly stupid decision, considering that China cut off Hubei’s province, but flights from there continued to operate.
Taiwan’s health officials, who were dispatched to Wuhan, proved otherwise and informed WHO in late December, but were ignored. A few days later (January 22) in the emergency WHO meeting, in which Taiwan was not allowed to participate, countries opted to delay proclaiming the coronavirus a global health emergency. At the crucial start of the pandemic, WHO endorsed China’s narrative with its tweets.
On January 30, the WHO’s Secretary-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in his speech praised China’s work and transparency on the issue. However, some publications later pointed out the surprisingly high number of urns in Wuhan alone. Rich Lowry, author at the Politico, called it the ”Chernobyl-type cover up”. One of the later imposed cover-ups was China’s expulsion of journalists working in major publications - the key reporters on coronavirus. However, this was said to be a countermeasure for the actions of the US.
WHO waited until 12 March to finally declare the pandemic. It is clear that the downplaying had a profound effect, specifically for officials, who had to justify their actions for taking the virus seriously and proposing various forms of isolation. Without a back-up from WHO their decisions seemed illogical and uncalled for. At times, Chinese officials stated that the “measures are seriously against recommendations of WHO”. Consequently, this created a different attitude in the USA, a country, which already seemed more interested in its economy than the health of its citizens. Tedros was wrong when stating that it ”was not the time to focus on the word we use. That will not prevent a single infection today or save a single life today.”
During the SARS outbreak in 2003, WHO criticised China for the lack of transparency, for which China later apologised. There is nothing similar this time.
The funding issue could have been resolved differently. The WHO chief could have resigned, as he should have done a long time ago. WHO should be blamed on an international level, since it failed to deliver the main function it was set up for – a reliable guidance. At the time when it was mostly needed it didn’t do its job, it chose to downplay the pandemic.
Nevertheless, despite WHO initially not working to its main principle, there couldn’t possibly be a worse time to withdraw its funding. Doing this now is completely selfish of Trump and his administration, not America or its citizens, but solely Trump. The move is purely of political origin for possible advantage in the upcoming presidential elections.
Image: Flickr / The White House