Photo: WHO retrieved

Is the WHO Responsible for the Pandemic?

The political fight around the WHO director and his relationship with China involves Trump, Maduro, and many other states. Meanwhile, common folk are the most affected.

It’s been a week since Donald Trump decided to temporarily cut U.S. funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), claiming that the multilateral body covered up vital information regarding the spread of COVID-19 in early January and was “in the pocket of the Chinese government”. His statement is somewhat reminiscent of Hugo Chávez’s over a decade ago: in 2007, Chávez announced Venezuela would cut ties with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, institutions he said “served the interests of the North.” A year later, Chávez accused the IMF of causing the 2008 financial crisis.

The Trump administration initially downplayed the impact coronavirus could have in America, and his recent statements are clearly a way to shift blame away from that. But while no one can be blamed for creating SARS-Cov-2 or putting the pandemic into motion, both the Chinese government and WHO did make mistakes.

While no one can be blamed for creating SARS-Cov-2 or putting the pandemic into motion, both the Chinese government and WHO did make mistakes.

Chinese authorities tried to cover up the extent of the disease and withheld information that slowed down the global response against the virus. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesusdirector of the WHOhad to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping in person, to grant the organization’s access to Wuhan. This also explains most of WHO’s flaws: like the United Nations and most multilateral organisms, WHO is built on politics.

Back in 2017, the then recently elected Tedros caused outrage around the world by appointing former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador. The decision (which was later revoked) can be explained by Zimbabwe’s support to Tedros’ nomination some months before.

Tedros is a clever political player. Before heading the WHO, he worked first as Health Minister, and then as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia. His nomination to preside WHO was also largely supported by China, and it’s safe to assume he used his good relationship with Xi Jinping to grant his officers safe passage to the epicenter of the pandemic. Sadly, the fine diplomatic balancing act is also behind one of WHO’s most criticized actions: its stance on Taiwan.

Cutting U.S. funding, which accounts for about 10% of the agency’s annual budget, won’t reduce China’s influence over the organization. On the contrary, it’ll give Beijing and its allies more room.

The island nationwhich only registers 425 cases and 6 deathshas been praised by the international community for its handling of the epidemic, yet Taiwan isn’t a member of the WHO. China has consistently blocked its entrance to the United Nations. WHO simply acts as if Taiwan didn’t exist, as was shockingly evident in a recent interview with Bruce Aylward, a senior WHO officer who pretended not to hear a question on the possibility of the organization reconsidering Taiwan’s membership.

More recently, Tedros himself has claimed to be a victim of racist attacks coming out from Taiwan, an accusation the island’s government denies. 

This doesn’t mean WHO is responsible at all for the spread of the virus. Its officers have no real power to tell governments what to do, and most countries (including America) have expert committees of advisors. Whether politicians listen to them or not is not the WHO’s fault. 

Yet cutting U.S. funding, which accounts for about 10% of the agency’s annual budget, won’t reduce China’s influence over the organization. On the contrary, it’ll give Beijing and its allies more room, while shielding Tedros from rightfully earned criticism. Nicolás Maduro, for example, is already defending the WHO’s director from “American attacks”.

What’s even worse is that the response against COVID-19 (and truly essential public health programs carried out in underdeveloped countries) will be hindered, causing long-lasting damage to the most vulnerable people in the world.

Juan Carlos Gabaldón

Medical doctor from Merida, currently studying Medical Parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine