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WHO Shouldn’t Let Politics Risk People’s Lives From The Coronavirus


In the weekend’s media update on the coronavirus, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), couldn’t stop praising the Chinese government’s response. He also announced WHO would work with social media giants inside and outside China, such as Baidu, Tencent, Google, and Face, to fight the spread of coronavirus “rumors.”

Since this update came right after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the eight whistleblowers who warned the public and was reprimanded by Chinese authorities for “spreading rumors,” Ghebreyesus was mocked online for ignoring facts on the ground and his track record of letting Beijing’s politics dictate WHO’s health-care decisions

The coronavirus that originated in China is a man-made tragedy. The Chinese government’s repeated neglect and cover-ups caused the nation to miss the “golden period” of infectious disease control. Now the death toll has surpassed 700 and there are more than 35,000 confirmed patients in China alone, according to the Chinese government’s report. I suspect the actual numbers of dead and infected are much higher.

However, WHO hasn’t said anything about the Chinese government’s deliberate cover-up. Instead, it has gone out of its way to preserve Beijing’s ego. Despite repeated calls to action since early January, WHO waited until Jan. 30 to declare the coronavirus outbreak a public-health emergency of international concern, after more than 200 deaths and close to 10,000 infections in China.

WHO’s delay might have delayed countries worldwide from taking effective actions to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Experts who studied past infectious diseases such as Ebloa and Zika conclude, ”When the systems for recognizing and responding to disease outbreaks act too slowly, the result is unnecessary delay, greater disease spread, additional people affected, and more lives lost.”

Yet Ghebreyesus sounded as though he was more concerned with not hurting Beijing’s feelings when he made the belated announcement. He went out of his way to emphasize that the WHO declaration “is not a vote of no confidence in China.” On Twitter, he claimed, “In many ways, China is actually setting new standards for outbreak response.”

Ghebreyesus was probably referring to the Chinese government’s ability to build a hospital in 10 days, lock down a dozen cities, and quarantine close to 60 million people. Ghebreyesus fails to recognize that such dramatic actions are, as Chinese PhD student Yangyang Chen writes, “more about projecting state power than protecting public health.”

Before admiring the “efficiency” and scales dictators operate on, we should always ask, “At what costs?” For example, how are people obtaining food and medical care when all public transportation and most gas stations have been shut down? The answer is: many aren’t.

On the same day Ghebreyesus sang his praises of China’s commitment to health and setting new standards in combating the virus outbreak, the South China Morning Post reported that a 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy in Hubei province died from a lack of access to food, water, and personal care for a week straight. His caregivers, his father and brother, were quarantined for coronavirus checkups. The local government was supposed to take care of him, but they did not.

This young man’s death is the ultimate symbol of failure from the Chinese government and the way China’s political system operates. In a country where the government spies on every citizen constantly through the most intrusive of surveillance systems, it somehow manages to neglect its most vulnerable at the time of most need.

Hence, two important questions absolutely have to be raised: Did the Chinese authorities really not know, or simply not care, that the coronavirus was spreading before they acted? Why did the WHO cheer for Chinese government’s draconian actions that led to this kind of human suffering?

On Twitter last week, WHO quoted Ghebreyesus saying that “We can only defeat this #2019nCoV outbreak with global solidarity, and that starts with collective participation in global surveillance.” The call to solidarity and collective participation apparently excludes Taiwan.

Taiwan is one of the top tourist destinations for mainlanders, and its deep business ties to the mainland mean there have been many business trips across the strait. Other than Hong Kong, Taiwan probably bears higher risk to coronavirus exposure than any other place outside of mainland China.

As of now, Taiwan has 13 confirmed coronavirus cases. Taiwanese officials have been complaining that they couldn’t get firsthand information from WHO because WHO lumps Taiwan with mainland China. The Wall Street Journal reports that “The WHO has held two emergency meetings since the coronavirus outbreak. Taiwan wasn’t permitted to attend, despite its proximity to China and its handful of confirmed cases. “

In the past, Beijing didn’t object to Taiwan’s participation in the WHO’s annual policy meeting as an observer. However, after Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected president of Taiwan in 2016, Beijing decided to punish Taiwan because of DPP’s aspiration for Taiwan’s independence someday, even though Tsai never made such a declaration. As a result, Taiwan has been denied attendance at WHO meetings and lost its direct access to WHO.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, Taiwan has been categorized as a high-risk area by WHO because it is listed under China. However, “Taiwan often must rely on second-hand information relayed by friendly governments and nongovernmental organizations” to manage its response, according to the Journal report. Lack of access to timely information is putting the island’s 24 million residents in danger.

This is not acceptable. Joanna Ou, the spokesperson for Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, lashed out at the WHO and Beijing this weekend, saying, “Disease knows no national boundaries and there should be no loopholes in global epidemic prevention. Putting political considerations over people’s health and safety; this, basically, is extremely vile.”

There is also a commercial cost. Last week, Italy stopped all flights to China. The ban includes Taiwan’s largest airline, China Airlines, because WHO lists Taiwan under China. Reuters reports that Taiwan officials have complained repeatedly to WHO about this, but WHO refused to make any changes to accommodate Taiwan.

WHO’s keenness to promote Beijing’s interests is the result of Beijing’s deliberate strategy. Beijing has focused on increasing its influence in international organizations like WHO for years. While Beijing is not a big donor to WHO’s coffers (Beijing contributed only $18 million in 2018 versus the United States’ $90 million), Beijing has actively cultivated WHO in other ways: showering WHO officials with lavish trips and praise, promoting Beijing-approved candidates to take leadership positions in the organization; and lobbying the organization to do Beijing’s bidding.

Last May, the World Health Assembly, WHO’s governing body, endorsed traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for the first time, after years of heavy lobbying from China. Beijing sees such an endorsement as increasing its international prestige and influence, and opening potential new markets for TCM.

WHO’s endorsement of TCM was highly controversial among medical experts. Concerned that proof of safety and effectiveness of TCM is scant, Scientific America blasted WHO’s decision as an “egregious lapse” in WHO’s mandate for setting medical treatment standards and articulating “ethical and evidence-based policy options.”

WHO was founded as a global organization to lead and coordinate international efforts to fight infectious diseases. It likes to present itself as an apolitical, science-based public policy body. It’s shameful that in recent years it has let Beijing dictate global health-care decisions. If WHO wants to continue to be the leader for global health-care issues, it must take politics out of decisionmaking and stop kowtowing to Beijing, because human lives are at stake.