There have been many commentators discussing the ‘failings’ of the World Health Organization (WHO) in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, most notably President Donald Trump who believes that they have been far more favorable to China, and news of private meetings within WHO saying they believed some countries’ had become “an unfortunate laboratory to study the virus” due to their handling has not gone down well.
The Associated Press has obtained this recording, along with several others, that shows that while they were being praised by governments for the way they were handling the crisis, internally it was not as clear-cut.
In June Trump announced he was so concerned with the way WHO were handling the crisis he would be withdrawing their funds as well as removing America from the organization, a move that president-elect Joe Biden has confirmed he will be overturning.
However WHO have agreed to have an independent panel review how they have managed their response after some of their member countries called for an inquiry, a move that Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said will allow the agency to become stronger “for the sake of the people we serve.”
One of the main issues relating to WHO is the fact that while they are able to make recommendations based on discussions within member states, they currently have no authority to enforce any of the suggestions they make. Because of this critics have claimed that WHO are afraid to ‘call out’ countries that could be causing harm to the issues in hand. For instance, the agencies discussed the countless mistakes that countries including Britain, Japan and France repeatedly made however refused to publicly criticize them due to them being large donors to the agency.
And some public health experts are saying that WHO’s ‘failure’ in making the most of their influence had allowed some countries to implement policies that were always destined to fail, potentially allowing the outbreak to continue for so long. International politics professor at Queen Mary University in London, Sophie Harman, said, “We need WHO to be bold and to use their political power to name and shame because the consequences are so devastating. This is their Spanish flu moment… by not speaking up when countries are doing questionable things, WHO is undermining its own authority while the planet burns.”
However others, including Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, believe that unless WHO’s members gives the agency more power – a move that both France and Germany have put forward in recent months – then politically it would be wrong for WHO to speak out saying “If Tedros was to take a very aggressive stance toward member countries, there would be repercussions.”
Spokesperson for WHO, Farah Dakhlallah confirmed that since the outbreak was first reported, “WHO officials have had and continue to have frank and open discussions with government counterparts… We are proud of an organizational culture that fosters candid discussion with the aim of reaching life-saving solutions.”
Meanwhile, emergency chief Dr. Michael Ryan has also said, “The WHO doesn’t interact in public debate or criticize our member states in public. What we try to do is work with our member states constructively.”
Although WHO do not like to challenge their member states in public it is not unheard of. During the SARS outbreak the agency warned they would close their China office after it was discovered that they were not honest about the number of cases they had. They have also accused Tanzania of withholding information regarding their Ebola epidemic in 2019.
The review into how WHO have handled their role in this year’s pandemic has come at a time when they are being asked to assist in the purchase and distribution of vaccines to countries around the world, ensuring poorer nations also benefit. Countries including Russia and America have already stated they will not help in the task however with Biden’s election win WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan is hoping America will change their mind.
Trump is not the only one who believes that WHO has not done enough to condemn China over the pandemic. A meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tedros in January left Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for the crisis, saying that the agency did not have “enough detail to say what has worked and what hasn’t” leaving many governments not knowing what to do for more weeks than necessary.
However a media briefing at the time saw Tedros announce, “China is doing many good things that are slowing the virus and the facts speak for themselves.”
When discussing an outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which itself was placed under lockdown rules after cases increased between their stops in Hong Kong and Yokohama, WHO’s Dr. Thomas Grein warned that it was a “very, very sensitive issue and we need to tread carefully.” However scientists believed the liner’s outbreak could help them to learn how the virus was transmitted with Ryan saying it was a “useful opportunity to study the natural history of the virus.”