Don’t politicise Covid

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on April 16, 2020 Published on April 16, 2020

Countries must come together to fight the virus. WHO bashing can wait

“We will have many body-bags in front of us if we don't behave,” was the impassioned plea from World Health Organisation chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking to the media on the eve of the 100th-day since the WHO had been notified of the first cases of pneumonia of unknown causes from China.

Dr Tedros was responding to a query on US President Donald Trump’s threat on cutting US funding to the WHO because of, as he saw it, the multilateral agency’s China-centric actions. As President Trump goes through with his threat today, it is important to revisit why the WHO chief urged world leaders to not “politicise” the novel coronavirus (Covid-19).

“It exploits the differences you have at the national level. If you want to be exploited and if you want to have many more body-bags then you do it. If you don't want many more body-bags then you refrain from politicising it. My short message is, please quarantine politicising Covid. The unity of your country will be very important to defeat this dangerous virus,” said Tedros, formerly the Health Minister of Ethiopia.

The WHO’s actions on Covid-19 has many detractors who think the agency delayed in calling the virus-spread a pandemic. Many criticise what they feel is a mollycoddling of sorts of China, be it in dissuading countries from imposing travel bans against the region, or its repeated praise for China’s handling of the outbreak.

There is disagreement and certainly there’s a case to post-mortem the WHO’s action and indeed that of various governments as well, in whether they heeded the warnings that came their way. Despite the delay in calling the “pandemic”, governments across the world have been found wanting on their forecasting, stockpiling and planning. Countries have been exposed for their dependence on China for products ranging from a humble handle glove to a critical ventilator.

So yes, there’s much that many have to answer for. Just, not now.

The death toll from Covid-19 has crossed one lakh people across 213 countries or regions, with over 18 lakh cases confirmed.

People are still in the midst of coping with lockdowns, quarantine, deaths and grief. This certainly is not the time for political brownie points.

In fact, this controversy also exposed a very ugly side of diplomacy. Something Tedros called out. “Tedros is a dot in the whole universe,” he said, referring to the personal attacks on him that were abusive, racist and involved name calling. “I'm proud of being black,” he said. Revealing that he’d even received death threats, Tedros said, “I don’t give a damn because it’s personally targeted to me...”

Pointing out that three months ago the attack came from Taiwan, Tedros said, “I will be straight today. ....Taiwan, the Foreign Ministry also, knew the campaign. They didn't disassociate themselves.”

There’s way more to the WHO controversy than meets the eye. But the WHO is not new to controversy. It’s been criticised for its handling of swine-flu under the previous dispensation, with questions being asked on the conflict of interest of its advisers linked to pharmaceutical companies.

But that said, there’s no time for distractions now, because as Dr Tedros says there are still many unknowns about this virus and its unclear how it will behave in future. Pointing to the Cold-war times of the 1960s, he said, smallpox was defeated by then adversaries, former USSR and the US coming together.

Countries will need to show such global solidarity and maturity if they want to get the virus under control. Till such time, the performance evaluations can wait.

Published on April 16, 2020

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