April 08, 2020

Trump Slammed the WHO Over Coronavirus. Hes Not Alone
President Donald Trump unleashed a tirade against the World Health Organization on Tuesday, accusing it of acting too slowly to sound the alarm about the coronavirus. It was not the first time in this pandemic that the global health body has faced such criticism.Government officials, health experts and analysts have in recent weeks raised concerns about how the organization has responded to the outbreak.In Japan, Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, recently noted that some people have started referring to the World Health Organization as the "Chinese Health Organization" because of what he described as its close ties to Beijing. Taiwanese officials say the WHO ignored its early warnings about the virus because China refuses to allow Taiwan, a self-governing island it claims as its territory, to become a member.Critics say the WHO has been too trusting of the Chinese government, which initially tried to conceal the outbreak in Wuhan. Others have faulted the organization and its leader, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for moving too slowly in declaring a global health emergency.The WHO, a U.N. agency, has defended its response, saying Wednesday that it alerted the world to the threat posed by the virus in a timely manner and that it was "committed to ensuring all member states are able to respond effectively to this pandemic."The agency's defenders say that its powers over any individual government are limited, and that it has done the best it can in dealing with a public health threat with few precedents in history.There will be time later to assess successes and failings, "this virus and its shattering consequences," the United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said Wednesday in a statement praising the WHO as "absolutely critical" to vanquishing COVID-19.Here's why the WHO is coming under attack.The WHO has not pushed China on early missteps.When cases of a mysterious viral pneumonia first appeared in Wuhan in December, Chinese health officials silenced whistleblowers and repeatedly played down the severity of the outbreak.Even as late as mid-January, as the virus spread beyond China's borders, Chinese officials described it as "preventable and controllable" and said there was no evidence it could be transmitted between humans on a broad scale.The WHO endorsed the government's claims, saying in mid-January, for example, that human-to-human transmission had not been proved.Critics say the organization's repeated deference to Beijing exacerbated the spread of the disease. A group of international experts was not allowed to visit Wuhan until mid-February."They could have been more forceful, especially in the initial stages in the crisis when there was a cover-up and there was inaction," said Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert specializing in China at Seton Hall University.Huang noted that during the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003, which killed more than 700 people worldwide, the WHO pushed the Chinese government to be more transparent by publicly criticizing it for trying to conceal the outbreak.At one point during the SARS epidemic, officials at hospitals in Beijing forced SARS patients into ambulances and drove them around to avoid their being seen by a visiting delegation of WHO experts, according to reports at the time.WHO officials were slow to declare a public health emergency, critics say.Even as the virus spread to more than half a dozen countries and forced China to place parts of Hubei province under lockdown in late January, the WHO was reluctant to declare it a global health emergency.WHO officials said at the time that a committee that discussed the epidemic was divided on the question of whether to call it an emergency but concluded that it was too early. One official added that they weighed the impact such a declaration might have on the people of China.After the United States announced a ban on most foreign citizens who had recently visited China, the WHO again seemed to show deference to Chinese officials, saying that travel restrictions were unnecessary. The group officially called the spread of the coronavirus a pandemic March 11.Some experts argue that the institution's delay in making such declarations deprived other countries of valuable time to prepare hospitals for an influx of patients."It reinforced the reluctance to take early strong measures before the catastrophe had actually landed on other shores," said François Godement, senior adviser for Asia at Institut Montaigne, a nonprofit group in Paris. "The WHO's tardiness or reluctance to call out the problem in full helped those who wanted to delay difficult decisions."The WHO defended its actions, saying Wednesday that it had "alerted member states to the significant risks and consequences of COVID-19 and provided them with a continuous flow of information" ever since Chinese officials first reported the outbreak Dec. 31.Guterres of the United Nations said, "It is possible that the same facts have had different readings by different entities." He added in his statement: "Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe and how all those involved reacted to the crisis."China's influence at the WHO is growing.China's leader, Xi Jinping, has made it a priority to strengthen Beijing's clout at international institutions, including the WHO, seeing the U.S.-dominated global order as an impediment to his country's rise as a superpower.China contributes only a small fraction of the WHO's $6 billion budget, while the United States is one of its main benefactors. But in recent years, Beijing has worked in other ways to expand its influence at the organization.The government has lobbied the WHO to promote traditional Chinese medicine, which Xi has worked to harness as a source of national pride and deployed as a soft-power tool in developing countries, despite skepticism from some scientists about its effectiveness.Last year, the WHO offered an endorsement of traditional Chinese medicine, including it in its influential medical compendium. The move was roundly criticized by animal welfare activists, who argued that it could contribute to a surge in illegal trafficking of wildlife whose parts are used in Chinese remedies.China has sought to promote traditional Chinese medicine in the treatment of symptoms of the coronavirus both at home and abroad. Last month, the WHO was criticized after it removed a warning against taking traditional herbal remedies to treat the coronavirus from its websites in mainland China.China's role at the WHO will probably continue to grow in the coming years, especially if Western governments retreat from the organization, as Trump has threatened."This is part of China's efforts to more actively engage in international institutions," said Huang, the global health expert. "It will not please every country or every actor, but it's going to affect the agenda of the WHO."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
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