The coronavirus pandemic will offer many lessons in what to do better to save more lives and do less economic harm the next time. But there’s already one way to ensure future pandemics are less deadly: Reform or defund the World Health Organization (WHO).
Last week Florida Senator Rick Scott called for a Congressional investigation into the United Nations agency’s “role in helping Communist China cover up information regarding the threat of the Coronavirus.” The rot at WHO goes beyond canoodling with Beijing, but that’s a good place to start.
The coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, sometime in the autumn, perhaps as early as November. It accelerated in December. Caixin Global reported that Chinese labs had sequenced the coronavirus genome by the end of December but were ordered by Chinese officials to destroy samples and not publish their findings. On Dec. 30 Dr. Li Wenliang warned Chinese doctors about the virus, and several days later local authorities accused him of lies that “severely disturbed the social order.”
Taiwanese officials warned WHO on Dec. 31 that they had seen evidence that the virus could be transmitted human-to-human. But the agency, bowing to Beijing, doesn’t have a normal relationship with Taiwan. On Jan. 14 WHO tweeted, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” The agency took another week to reverse that misinformation.
On Jan. 22-23 a WHO emergency committee debated whether to declare Covid-19 a “public health emergency of international concern.” The virus already had spread to several countries, and making such a declaration would have better prepared the world. It should have been an easy decision, despite Beijing’s objections. Yet director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus declined and instead traveled to China.
He finally made the declaration on Jan. 30—losing a week of precious time—and his rhetoric suggests the trip to Beijing was more about politics than public health. “The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken,” he said. “I left in absolutely no doubt about China’s commitment to transparency.”
A University of Southampton study suggests the number of coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95% had China moved to contain the virus three weeks sooner. Yet Dr. Tedros gushed that Beijing had set “a new standard for outbreak response.” He also praised the speed with which China “sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world.” China didn’t do so until Jan. 12.
On Jan. 30 Dr. Tedros also said that “WHO doesn’t recommend limiting trade and movement.” President Trump ignored the advice and announced travel restrictions on China the following day, slowing the spread of the virus. U.S. progressive elites echoed WHO and criticized Mr. Trump. WHO didn’t declare the coronavirus a pandemic until March 11.
Not that any of this has prompted much soul-searching. Alluding to China, WHO official Michael Ryan said last week, “We need to be very careful also to not to be profiling certain parts of the world as being uncooperative.” Beijing touted the remarks, as it has other WHO statements.
This record is tragic but not surprising. Much of the blame for WHO’s failures lies with Dr. Tedros, who is a politician, not a medical doctor. As a member of the left-wing Tigray People’s Liberation Front, he rose through Ethiopia’s autocratic government as health and foreign minister. After taking the director-general job in 2017, he tried to install Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador.
China inevitably gains more international clout as its economy grows. But why does WHO seem so much more afraid of Beijing’s ire than Washington’s? Only 12% of WHO’s assessed member-state contributions come from China. The U.S. contributes 22%. Americans at WHO generally are loyal to the institution, while Chinese appointees put Chinese interests first or they will suffer Beijing’s wrath.
China’s influence over WHO has been organized and consistent, whereas the U.S. response has been haphazard. Washington needs a quarterback to lead the fight against Chinese dominance at WHO and other international organizations. Yet the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs lacks a political appointee.
The U.S. will have allies in an effort to reform WHO. A frustrated Japanese deputy prime minister called WHO the “Chinese Health Organization.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly is rethinking U.K.-China ties over China’s lack of candor about the virus.
Congress should investigate how WHO performed against the coronavirus and whether its judgments were corrupted by China’s political influence. Of all international institutions, WHO should be the least political. Its core mission is to coordinate international efforts against epidemics and provide honest public-health guidance.
If WHO is merely a politicized Maginot Line against pandemics, then it is worse than useless and should receive no more U.S. funding. And if foreign-policy elites want to know why so many Americans mistrust international institutions, WHO is it.