The World Health Organization’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, holds its annual meeting May 18-19. The meeting comes as coronavirus has infected more than 4.8 million people and killed more than 315,000 worldwide. The WHO faces two key decisions this week that are closely related not only to everyone’s health, but also to its survival.
The first is a draft resolution, proposed by Australia, demanding WHO’s Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus initiate an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of the international response to the pandemic, the actions of the WHO and its ‘timeline’ of the pandemic.”
The Australian government has pushed for such an independent international inquiry since April 19. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the purpose was to “equip the international community to better prevent or counter the next pandemic and keep our citizens safe.” She and Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, along with other government officials, have been steadily building international support for their case.
Not surprisingly, the proposal drew some fiery responses from the Chinese government and its mouthpiece. In a statement, China’s embassy in Canberra said, “[C]ertain Australian politicians are keen to parrot what those Americans have asserted and simply follow them in staging political attacks on China.” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman called Australia’s move a “political manipulation,” and he advised Australia “to give up its ideological prejudices.”
In one of its editorials, the Global Times, a state-run Chinese tabloid, called Australia’s action an “attack China” campaign that only exposes Australian politicians as “eager to win the U.S. favor.” In another editorial, it warned that Australia might pay a heavy economic price if it continues to act as a U.S. “attack dog.” Global Times’ editor Hu Xijin, an ultra-nationalist, even compared Australia to “a piece of chewed up gum stuck under China’s shoe. Sometimes you just have to find a stone and scrape it off.”
China Retaliates Against Australia
It seemed like the Chinese government heeded Hu’s advice and decided to teach Canberra an economic lesson. Beijing announced recently it would suspend beef imports from four major meat processing plants in Australia and impose an 80 percent tariff on Australia’s barley exports due to unspecified “violations of inspection and quarantine requirements,” an action widely seen as Beijing’s retaliation.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner. Between 2018-2019, China imported close to $100 billion from Australia, including one-third of Australia’s farm products, with $1.6 billion worth of beef and $960 million of barley. Beijing’s recent trade restriction will cost Australia’s farmers and economy dearly. But if Beijing thinks it can use economic pain to cow Canberra into backing off from seeking an international probe into the coronavirus outbreak, it will be dead wrong.
Not only has the Australian government stood firm behind its proposal, but it has also has received the backing of more than 120 countries, including Britain, Canada, Russia, and all 27 EU member states. The United States is notably absent from this coalition, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did encourage other nations to join Australia in seeking answers for the outbreak.
The proposal’s popularity is a reflection on the failure of Beijing’s PR effort since the outbreak, a combination of carrots and sticks. It tried to use “mask diplomacy” to win hearts and minds, while having its antagonistic “wolf” diplomats spread misinformation about the virus and belligerently attack any critics.
Taiwan’s WHO Status Is Front and Center
Besides Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the Wuhan virus outbreak, another issue that will be at the center of this week’s WHO meeting is Taiwan’s membership.
From 2009 to the beginning of 2016, 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 was elected president of Taiwan in 2016, Beijing decided to punish Taiwan because of that party’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 2016.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, the WHO has categorized Taiwan as a high-risk area because it is listed under China. However, according to a Wall Street Journal report, “Taiwan often must rely on second-hand information relayed by friendly governments and nongovernmental organizations” to manage its response. Lack of access to timely information puts the island’s 24 million residents in danger.
Fortunately, Taiwan’s government has done an exemplary job of containing the outbreak without shutting down its economy. Despite its geographic proximity to mainland China and the island’s dense population, Taiwan reported only 440 confirmed cases and seven deaths as of this week. Taiwan’s success has won worldwide praise.
WHO officials, however, have stubbornly refused to acknowledge Taiwan’s accomplishments. Instead, they can’t stop praising Beijing, helping the CCP deflect blame, and repeating Beijing’s talking points, including its dismissal of early reports of human-to-human transmission.
According to recent German intelligence, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked WHO’s director-general to hold off issuing a global warning about the coronavirus as a pandemic back in January, a costly delay that might have resulted in a loss of four to six weeks in the fight against the outbreak. WHO’s actions, or lack thereof, have raised questions about whether the organization put global health in jeopardy by letting too much politics drive its health decisions.
What Happens if the Resolutions Fail?
This week, Taiwan will be absent from the WHO meeting, but its membership status will be front and center. A resolution granting Taiwan an observer status will need the support of more than 50 percent of member states to pass.
Given that the WHO has 194 members and the Chinese government has spent years cultivating relationships with member states, especially those from the developing world, passing either or both of these resolutions — an independent inquiry into the outbreak and Taiwan’s membership — will be a tall order. Still, the WHO should know that its credibility has suffered greatly during this outbreak because of its high-level officials’ shameful kowtowing to Beijing.
Calling the WHO a “pipe organ” for Communist China, President Donald Trump temporarily suspended funding to the organization. For its most recent two-year budget cycle, the WHO received $893 million from the United States. On the eve of the WHO’s annual meeting, Trump was reportedly weighing a proposal that would reduce U.S. funding to the WHO by 90 percent.
If one or both of these resolutions fail, the call to disband the WHO or have the U.S. stop funding the organization completely will only get louder. Ultimately, the World Health Organization’s survival is on the line.