Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 6 April 2020


WHO fails in its responsibility

Scott Morrison deserves strong international backing for his argument on Friday that both China and the World Health Organisation should “do something” about the wet markets where the catastrophic coronavirus started and “went around the world … we all know that’’. Nor is this the first time such a virus has emerged from these markets. “All this money that comes out of the UN and WHO … this is why we have to be quite strident about these things,” Morrison said.
The fetid markets reflect poorly on China’s pretensions to be a responsible member of the international community. The world cannot be expected to go on tolerating such risks.
However desirable the proposition, it is debatable whether China could be compelled legally to pay reparations to countries across the world for its deceitful mishandling of the pandemic, spawned in Wuhan. The conservative Henry Jackson Society in London argues that it should be. The society is proposing a claim under international law for $6.5 trillion, the amount that G7 countries alone have spent so far salvaging their devastated economies from the fallout of COVID-19.


Beijing, as it loses no opportunity to smugly pat itself on the back for what it claims is a sharp decline in case numbers in China, doubtless has other ideas. But it cannot deny the depth of anger towards it given its culpability for the crisis. Its wet markets bring together traditional livestock with a variety of other animals, including rats, bats, civet cats and pangolins used for food or medicine. Observers have described them as cesspits of blood, entrails, excrement and other waste that create conditions for disease to thrive and migrate from animals to humans. Zoonotic diseases in China have been responsible for other devastating outbreaks, including the 2003 SARS epidemic that emanated from Guangdong, and the 2009 “swine flu” virus.
Yet every previous undertaking by Beijing to “do something” about them has been meaningless. After the SARS outbreak, a temporary ban was imposed. In July 2003, the WHO declared the virus contained. In August, China lifted its ban on the markets.
The WHO, as Mr Morrison said, has an inescapable responsibility to deal with them. And the community of nations, as it seeks to overcome the virus that emanated in Wuhan, must now pressure Beijing to ban them for good, through forums such as the G20.
The WHO’s 1948 founding charter charged it with achieving “the highest possible level of health for all people”. It is failing to do so. Its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian health minister, has emerged as an apologist for Beijing’s handling of the outbreak. Even members of the WHO’s executive committee have spoken about the costs of China’s “reprehensible” obfuscation surrounding the extent of the outbreak in the early days. The organisation has also pointedly ignored the success of Taiwan, with a population of 24 million, in containing the virus to a reported 363 cases, with just five deaths.
After meeting Xi Jinping in Beijing early in the crisis, Dr Tedros praised China for “setting a new standard for outbreak control” and for its “openness to sharing information”. At the time, Chinese officials were arresting and punishing doctors who had raised the alarm about the virus for “spreading rumours”. Dr Tedros was unmoved, doubling down on his praise and declaring “China had bought the world time”. Precisely the opposite is true.
The tally of coronavirus cases was more than 1.2 million on Sunday, with 65,000 deaths. China’s caseload is now exceeded by those of the US, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Despite China attempting to lever the situation to its advantage by handing out aid, its credibility will remain in tatters until it closes its deadly wet markets.

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