Opinion : Is The World Health Organisation (WHO) China-Centric?

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For a long while now, the world has been facing the challenges of the Coronavirus. The virus, which originated from Wuhan, has now spread to 114 countries. And with recovered cases, there have also been many cases reporting mass deaths.

Necessarily, the World Health Organization (WHO) should be dominating the headlines regarding their progress on the pandemic situation prevailing at hand. After all, it is their responsibility to look after the public health of the international community.

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No need to politicize COVID-19: UN health agency chief | UN News
Dr.Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization

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Unfortunately, it is the director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has grabbed the eyeballs of one and all. From the political corridors to the common man, all have been looking at him for all the wrong reasons.

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It started with the way the international institution had handled the situation. However, now, with world leaders coming out saying against the director-general is no small issue. It was a tweet from the US President Donald Trump that triggered the anger among one and all. It is not the beginning, but the final nail on the coffin. It is not just US President Donald Trump, but many voices have been raised in the past few weeks in criticism of the global health body.

Taro Aso is the Deputy Prime Minister and the Finance Minister of Japan. In a recent statement in the Japan Parliament, he lashed out at the World Health Organization for taking sides with China. Aso also mentioned that the “World Health Organisation” as the “Chinese Health Organization” because of their inclination towards Beijing. Being a pro-Taiwanese politician, he further questioned- irrespective of being a world body, WHO does not even include Taiwan.

Not just these world leaders, but even government officials, health specialists, and analysts have also raised concerns regarding the autonomy of the organization. There are several reasons why the organization been under the radar.

A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (photo credit: REUTERS/ DENIS BALIBOUSE)
A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (Credit: REUTERS)

WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION HAS BEEN LENIENT WITH CHINA’S MISDEEDS

According to some reports, the first case was reported in the Hubei province in China. Back in November 2019, a 55-year-old individual complained of dry cough, fever, and breathlessness. According to some reports, several cases came out in December as well in the Wuhan province. The Chinese government did not want the news to spread among the people and come out in the open.

Ai Fen, Director of Wuhan Central Hospital, had then decided to carry out tests of the samples. That was when it was deduced that it is not some simple disease. The traces in the blood sample were not that of pneumonia. It was shown that all of them had a virus, which was similar to that of SARS. Her research was published in Chinese News Week, a Chinese daily. The test results had come by December end.

In early January, Genomics Company involved in testing received an order right from the top. Hubei Medical Probational ordered the organization to stop testing and destroy all the samples. On 3rd January, the National Health Commission lab was ordered to destroy all the samples. It is in this manner that the samples deducted were not acknowledged, those who raised concerns were silenced, and the proofs that were given were destroyed. The blanket put by the Chinese government in this situation cost the world some crucial time.

The situation now had gone out of control. Wuhan became the centre of this disease. However, even after that, Chinese leadership did not take many steps to contain the disease. Even those people who tried to warn the authorities were silenced.

Dr Wenliang, who worked at the Wuhan Hospital, had treated a few patients with the COVID-19 symptoms. Being an ophthalmologist himself, he took initiatives to reach out to the truth. He further shared this information with his colleagues in a bid to warn them about the same. The messages were sent on WeChat, an app similar to Whatsapp used in the Chinese mainland. Unfortunately, he did not know that his messages were being read by the authorities as well. Such is the extent of censorship that prevails in the state. He was immediately taken into custody. The police then made him sign the documents so that he does not speak to anyone about this again. He was accused of spreading lies and rumours and targeted for speaking the truth. Around February end, he passed away while treating the patients.

With more and more cases coming out in the open, the Chinese authorities ultimately had to accept that there had been a presence of a virus that is life-threatening.

A city in China post lockdown

On 23rd January that there was a complete lockdown in Wuhan, which had become the epicentre by them. By then, 5 million people had left the province, as stated by the Wuhan Mayor, Zhou Xianwang. It was time for the Chinese Lunar Year. It witnesses the most massive human migration on earth. 450 million trips –both domestic and international were carried out across the country this time. This migration led to the people becoming carriers of the virus.

There is a list of wrongdoings by the Chinese government. One can name it, and they have done it in the name of hiding the truth. Even after such activities, not once has the WHO spoke against it. They have not blamed the government for hiding the truth, silencing the whistleblowers, destroying the samples, delaying in relaying vital information to the World Health Organisation, and not sharing the evidence of the human-to-human transmission. Above all, they have not even questioned the misdeed of the Chinese Communist Party by putting millions of lives on stake. The WHO should have taken the required decision. However, they also acted late on their behalf.

People wearing masks stand in a line to buy face masks in front of a drug store amid the rise in confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease of COVID-19 in Daegu South Korea March 3 2020. REUTERSKim Kyung-Hoon
People wearing masks stand in a line to buy face masks in front of a drug store amid the rise in confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease of COVID-19 in Daegu South Korea March 3 2020.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION DID NOT DECLARE IT A PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY ON-TIME

Till the mid-January, the Chinese officials maintained the stance that it is a preventable and controllable disease. They further stated that there is no evidence that there is a human-to-human transmission on a large scale. Without further investigation on their behalf, the WHO went on giving lip services as claimed by the Chinese government. On 2nd January, 41 patients had been deducted with Coronavirus. These patients were admitted to the Wuhan Hospital. 44% of them had no travel history to the wet markets in Huanan. Also, as per reports of the WHO, Thailand had recorded its first case that has been imported in the country on 13th January. This was a day before when the WHO had rejected the chances of human-to-human transmission. They took China’s word rather than confirming it themselves.

 

The organization should have mounted pressure on the country to provide all vital information to battle is epidemic. Instead, they went too slow on them.

The handling of Coronavirus has been contrasting to how the SARS was handled. During the SARS outbreak, the then director-general Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland declared an advisory on the travel ban. It was the first in the 55-year history of the global body. Also, WHO back then had publicly criticized China and had pushed it to be more transparent regarding the outbreak.

This timely response was not taken in this case. By then, the virus had spread to many countries. It was on 21st January that the WHO officially acknowledged that this virus has a human-to-human transmission. Still, they did not declare it as a public health emergency of international concern.

It was only on 30th January that the WHO released the official statement. That was reverse in their decision which they held until a few weeks ago. However, until then, there has already been a surge in the cases being reported. The increase in cases daily was evident that there has been human-to-human transmission. Even a committee was formed with an objective of whether it should be declared an emergency or not. However, the committee, led by the chairman Dr Didier Houssin was divided on the decision making. Some felt that it is better to declare an emergency, while others thought that it would single out a particular country.

Tedros Adhanaom Ghebreyesus & President Xi Jinping
Tedros Adhanaom Ghebreyesus & Chinese President Xi Jinping

A team of international experts was not even allowed to visit Wuhan. It was only after Director-General Tedros Adhanom visited President Xi Jinping at the end of January that the team was allowed in mid-February. After the field trip, the W.HO was busy praising heaps for the Chinese leadership in dealing with the situation. It felt like the WHO is nothing more than a broadcasting forum for China. “The country has been taking ambitious, agile, and aggressive measures to contain the disease.” It was the statement by the organizations. Not once did they take a neutral stance and discuss this situation as health experts. This, their unusual deference to the country worsened the situation out of control.

Furthermore, WHO opposed the USA’s decision on the travel ban implemented on foreign citizens with a recent travel history from China. The WHO was also reluctant about any immediate the countries take precautionary measures before their announcement. It was on 11th March 2020, when WHO finally made an official declaration that it is a pandemic situation. This declaration of a pandemic comes after 57 days of the first reported case. They did not even act as per their guidelines of “pandemic“. By then there had been 3,000 deaths. By then, it was too late. The disease had spread across the globe weeks before.

Had the declaration been made some time back, then also it would have proved beneficial. The medical fraternity would have got ample time to make the necessary arrangements in case the virus spreads. The government officials would have got ample time to announce the necessary guidelines.

Many felt from this response of the organization that it was protecting the government. It proves to the underlying fact that China has been flexing its diplomatic muscle in the institutions for a long time.

World map China highlighted

CHINA’S INCREASING INFLUENCE ON INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTIONS

Xi Jinping is the Chinese leader. In recent times, it has been observed that China has been trying to strengthen its position in various international institutions. It includes the WHO as well. This measure has been taken to challenge the American domination on the world order. It is because this acts as a deterrent to China’s rise as a superpower.

China contributed about $44 million, while the USA contributed more than $400 million in 2019 WHO budget- more than double of the 2nd largest country donor. With the US stopping the funds for WHO, many actors, including government officials and health specialists, are worried that this will harm the organization as a whole.

This monetary power has so far prevented China from flexing its muscles in the institutions. Nevertheless, there have been many other factors with which China is fulfilling its dream of showing their dominance. There are no prizes for guessing. It is none other than the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, in Geneva last month. Critics say the W.H.O. has been too trusting of the Chinese government.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus always had the backing from China.

LINKS BETWEEN BEIJING AND WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION DIRECTOR-GENERAL

There are not just one, but many links that connect the Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to China. Dr Tedros, as he is commonly known, was elected for this position, and officially joined the office on 1st July 2017. He competed against British candidates, Dr David Nabarro. He is the first African and the first non-doctor to hold this post. The designation behind is name is because Dr.Tedros holds a PhD in community health.

The director-general is chosen through an election, and Dr.Tedros had an unprecedented win over his competitors. All of this cannot be possible without a sturdy backing. That sturdy backing is none other than from China. Beijing voted in his favour. They even helped him influence the votes to his side. In other words, as per reports, it was the Chinese who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make him win.

Dr.Tedros association with China is not from 2017. It goes long back to his career in his country, Ethiopia. He held the position of the health minister from 2005-12. It was alleged that during his tenure, he covered up to three cholera epidemics in the country.

Dr Tedros, later on, went on to hold the position of the foreign minister of the country from 2012-16. Chinese enterprises have been the constant support to the Ethiopia economy for almost a decade now. From investments in the railways, dams, skyscrapers to the sports stadiums, China has pumped billions in the country’s economy. They are incredibly dependent on the Chinese to run their country. When he held this position, they invested about $13.6 billion in the African nation. These investments were purely made to gain influence in the region. Joining the dots is undoubtedly not tricky over here.

Apart from his previous jobs, this job also has had its fair share on the controversy. Back in October 2017, Dr Tedros stirred up a controversy by making a statement he would be honoured to have been joined by Mr Mugabe, 93, as a goodwill ambassador of the World Health Organisation. It dates back to October 2017 in a global conference in Uruguay on non-communicable diseases. He further went on to praise d that Zimbabwe has universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe has been a Chinese man for decades. It was the Chinese who financed and armed him back in the 1970s. This statement by the director-general of the WHO was surprised by millions of people. There was widespread outrage among the people. It was swift and unforgiving. Several world leaders, the State Department, medical professionals, and social media users, expressed outrage or puzzlement at the appointment. He finally decided to retreat from this decision after pressure was mounted on him.

Now during the Coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government was able to lobby in the World Health Organisation to promote Chinese traditional medicines to cure this disease. Traditional medicines are considered a matter of national pride, not just by the leader but by the citizens as well. However, health experts were sceptical about the success of these medicines in curing the diseases. Not only that, but objections were also raised by various animal right activist regarding the proposal by whom they argued that it would lead to increases in illegal animal trafficking.

All of this proves one thing – if a country cannot influence an organization with money, then it must appoint that man in the highest position who can be influenced as per their whims and fancies. Not only the World Health Organisation, but China has also been able to exercise its diplomatic and military influence in the region.

It has an increased presence on the health policies of more and more countries. It is considered to be a part of China’s Road and Belt Initiative. Not just in its backyard, but even the African countries can feel the influence of the Chinese dragon. Whether they are doing it for the best interest of the partners or themselves is a question in itself. According to the French researchers, the health allocation by the Chinese hardly helps to fulfil the needs of the African countries.

Not just that, the SEA countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand have not been able to close their borders to China, even during the worst of times. Surprisingly, the country has much influence on the smallest of matters. They did not allow the others to closedown their borders to China while themselves closed down provinces with a larger population than many of these countries. Countries like Pakistan and Cambodia were still al, even when the disease was at its peak.

Fortunately, at least one country has dared to question the supremacy of China, even when it is in their backyard. That is none other than Taiwan. Taiwan has been shouting about Coronavirus from the top of the roof, months before it paralyzed the world.

Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-Chung holds up an email the government sent to WHO on December 31 at a briefing on April 11 (Credit: CECC)

HOW IS TAIWAN INCLUDED IN THIS CONTROVERSY?

Taiwan has been a part of this controversy since the very beginning. One might surely argue that that the Dr.Tedros biased nature is open to the international debate. Some might also say that these allegations on the global health body are baseless. Some may even further argue that the WHO has been work tremendously well in containing this disease. Nonetheless, accept it – Dr Tedros embraced the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) One China Policy by barring Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly.

It is a harsh reality, and it needs to be accepted irrespective of one’s ideology.

Taiwan is a self-governing territory. Even then the CCP considers it as a region and not a country. It has been only allowed to participate as an observer since 2003 in the United Nations, all hanks to China. Then in 2017, Dr.Tedros took over. A year later, China was granted permission by the United Nations to block Taiwan from participating in the WHO forums.

WHO has also excluded Taiwan from an emergency meeting in January. While China wants to exercise more control over the region after this crisis, the European countries are eager to share the table with Taiwan in the global forum. Now Taiwan claims that it had warned WHO about the Coronavirus in December itself.

WHO is undoubtedly not going to take any actions on the same, not anytime soon, at least. It has not shown any eagerness regarding this issue for a long time. It is quite evident after journalist Yvonne Tong of Hong Kong news outlet RTHK interviewed Aylward, the assistant director-general of WHO.

Politics was the last thing that should have happened in such a situation. There have been many instances where people have resorted to the dirty blame game. Many have started criticizing the World Health Organisation for its inefficiency. On the other hand, defenders of the global body have raised their voices against the measures taken by the respective government.

More than $17.5 million worth of face masks, more than $13.6 million in surgical garments, and more than $27.2 million in ventilators were sold to China by American companies during the first two months of the year. It was done even after the USA intelligence had warned that the disease would spread. Now the country is facing a shortage of medical supplies for their own needs. Many have blamed the President for not declaring a national lockdown when the USA now has the most significant number of cases.

US-POLITICS-TRUMP
US President has been criticized for a lack of leadership in controlling the pandemic.

The USA government has also come under scrutiny. The defenders of WHO have started blaming the USA government for the lack of proper measures. It has lead to the mess in their house. That is an entirely different story altogether. Each country, be it Italy, UK, USA are fighting against the virus with full determination. However, every country has its problems, and they are trying its best. It is currently the WHO that should have lead from the front. It has a huge responsibility on its shoulder – guiding the world out of this epidemic. However, the allegations of supporting the wrongdoers have dominated the headlines.

It is a fight, not among us but against the COVID-19. It is a fight for the survival of humanity. We all should be united. However, things are not going the way it should have been.

Whatever the reason be, but the situation currently prevailing raises concerns about the functioning of the organization. It cannot be overlooked at all. The autonomy of the organization is in danger. Promoting health, serving the vulnerable, and keeping the world safe are the agendas of the World Health Organisation. Unfortunately, it had deviated from the agenda long back, when it decided not to call out names of the wrongdoers.

One must understand that even if one country loses, it will have a global impact. The faults and the blame game can wait. Once we are over this crisis, we can, and we should have a retrospection of how the situation was handled.

Why did the WHO remain in a state of denial regarding human-to-human transmission till 11th March? Why did they declare it a pandemic after so long? What exactly was the purpose of the WHO delegation to China when the details of the outbreak were reported late? Why was the warning of Taiwan not taken into consideration? Will the role of Taiwan ever be acknowledged? These are some of the questions which the World Health Organisation needs to answer. These are some of the questions raised in the World Health Organisation. An organization present in 147 countries for over seven decades. It is the same organization that is responsible for foreseeing and eradicating global health calamities. However, these questions can wait. It has to wait.

It goes on to substantiate the political interest of the few has become more important than saving the lives of individuals. If we do not sort out the differences among us, at least till the time this pandemic is not over, it would be a massive loss for the world. After all, it is a battle for the sake of humanity.

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Apoorva Iyer
Apoorva Iyer is a student of B.A Political Science (Hons.) at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University.

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