From the Viewsroom

WHO let the virus out

Venky Vembu | Updated on April 10, 2020 Published on April 10, 2020

Its response to the Covid pandemic is open to criticism

Few things illustrate the decline of international public organisations more starkly than the predicament that the World Health Organization (WHO) finds itself in today. The nodal agency of the United Nations, tasked with, among other things, overseeing international coordination in the event of just such a pandemic as the world is witnessing now, suffers from a grievous crisis of credibility, which has had catastrophic consequences. Much of it is centred around the perception that as a concession to Chinese leaders’ sensibilities, the WHO’s responses in the first few weeks following the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan actively channelled the line that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. In doing so, it wilfully ignored an alert to that effect from Taiwan, a country that is not a formal member of the UN system and over which China claims territorial sovereignty. The WHO also erred in disfavouring a ban on travel to and from China, which allowed the virus to spread around the globe and claim, by last count, over 88,000 lives.

On Wednesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who in many ways has come to personify the credibility crisis that afflicts the agency, appealed for political unity in combating the crisis. That sentiment, in response to a question about US President Donald Trump’s criticism of the WHO, sure sounds admirable. The WHO chief himself ran afoul of it, within minutes, with his claim that the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry was at the centre of a campaign of vilification centred around his race. There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around for the high toll that the virus has taken; some countries’ leaders have been slow to respond. But the WHO is not above criticism. And in continuing to advance a political narrative that, while being sensitive to Chinese leaders’ sensibilities, has proved fatally flawed, the WHO does itself, and its leadership, no credit.

Published on April 10, 2020

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