WHO and China: The what, when, where, and why of COVID-19 handling

WHO and China: The what, when, where, and why of COVID-19 handling

Friday, May 29, 2020

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The World Health Organization (WHO) just doesn't get it. Lavishing praise on China before the pending investigation into the agency's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak can only raise further suspicions about their seemingly cosy relationship.

At a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday, WHO Executive Director Dr Michael Ryan said the agency had been having daily discussions with colleagues in China, as the WHO and many governments are eager to understand the animal origins of the novel coronavirus.

“I am very pleased to hear a very consistent message coming from China, which is one of openness to such an approach,” Dr Ryan is reported as saying, adding that he didn't believe a date had yet been set for an international mission to be sent to China to explore the origin of the virus.

At the same news conference, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said an agreement to have international experts visit China had been struck back in February but did not yet happened.

Naturally, both officials' comments have served as fodder for countries which are sceptical of the WHO and China. In fact, we recall Mr Trump once calling the WHO a “pipe organ” for China in the handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.

We also remember very clearly Japan's Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso saying that the WHO should be renamed the “Chinese Health Organization”.

Since his election as WHO director general in May 2017, Dr Tedros has not been able to shake off talk that he had received heavy backing from China to get the job, ahead of British candidate Dr David Nabarro.

That connection, we expect, will resurface when the agreed international inquiry into the WHO's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic gets underway.

As we have stated before here, the evaluation is critical, not just because of the joust between the US and China over the origin of the virus, which up to yesterday has claimed more than 358,000 lives and infected over 5.9 million people worldwide.

The inquiry is important because the WHO is among a number of multilateral institutions that are indispensable, as their mission and remit can only be handled by international cooperation and coordination.

The WHO, therefore, will have some tough questions to answer, especially regarding its relationship with China, because the outcome of the probe will be critical to its ability to tackle public health worldwide.

One of the questions that we expect will be foremost on the minds of those charged with the responsibility of conducting the inquiry will be: Who was China's “patient zero” and when and how the individual was infected?

The WHO will most likely be cross-examined on the veracity of a claim reported by Newsweek and Der Spiegel that it delayed declaring COVID-19 a pandemic after coming under pressure from China.

Analysts who are keeping abreast of this development have also said that a real test of the relationship between the agency and Beijing will be whether the planned WHO-led delegation to China can meet some of the key figures involved in managing the initial stages of the country's COVID-19 outbreak, as well as other health professionals, without the Chinese authorities present.

The result of this inquiry will be critical to the management of public health crises in the future.

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