This article was written by Lindsey Stroud, policy analyst at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
It’s been a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a “pandemic.” And, not coincidentally, it’s been one year of blunders from the WHO in its response. From tracing the virus, to teaming up with suppressive Chinese authorities, the WHO has stumbled in both addressing and eradicating COVID-19. Here are five blunders from the past year.
1. WHO’s Totally Wrong Tweet, Delay in Addressing Pandemic
On January 14, 2020, the World Health Organization falsely tweeted that based on investigations from China, there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of COVID-19. By January 28, this was no longer the case as human-to-human transmission was confirmed after nearly 6,000 cases were reported in China, as well as Australia, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and at least nine other countries. They would reverse that tweet a week later. As of June 29, 2020, the WHO no longer held that position, revising their official statement by noting that “there may have been limited human-to-human transmission” and that “human-to-human transmission would not be surprising.” After the tweet blunder, “a WHO emergency committee debated on whether to declare COVID-19 a ‘public health emergency of international concern,” despite nearly a dozen countries with confirmed cases. It would take another month for the organization to declare COVID-19 a pandemic, on March 11, almost 30 days after the infamous tweet.
2. WHO Ignores Taiwan; Launches Smear Campaign
On December 31, 2019, after learning of several cases in Wuhan, China (and given its proximity to their own country) officials in Taiwan “sent an email to the WHO … to request further information from the WHO,” as well discretely referring “to the disease as atypical pneumonia and noted that patients had been isolated for treatment.” Taiwanese officials assumed that from the email, “public health officials should have been able to deduce that there was a strong possibility of human-to-human transmission for this new disease.” In late January, the WHO declared that COVID-19 was “not yet a global health emergency.” This came amid hundreds of cases in China, 17 deaths, and other at least seven other countries – including the United States – reporting COVID-19 cases. After sending the email to the WHO, Taiwan activated “border quarantine measures,” and became the first country in the world to screen passengers that had traveled from Wuhan. Instead of praising Taiwan on their response, officials at the WHO went on the defensive. In April, while defending the WHO’s COVID-19 response, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, commented on threats he had received, pointing blame at Taiwan, remarking that “this attack came from Taiwan … They didn’t disassociate themselves. They even started criticizing me in the middle of all that.” Taiwan’s foreign ministry issued a statement that requested the WHO Director-General to “immediately correct his unfounded allegations.” It should be noted that as of March 16, 2021, Taiwan has reported 990 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and only 10 deaths.
3. WHO Lauds China, Despite the Country’s Downplaying COVID-19, Suppressed Doctors
On December 31, 2019, Dr. Ai Fen, former-head of the emergency department of the Central Hospital of Wuhan, “received a test virus report from an unidentified patient,” with SARS coronavirus, which she then circled in red and shared with the hospital and a doctor from another Wuhan hospital. It would then be distributed to another doctor, Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliange. The same day, using WeChat, Wenliange shared an image of the virus report and warned his medical school classmates about a SARS-like virus that required several patients in his hospital to be quarantined. After sharing the information, officials from the Wuhan health authority showed up in the middle of the night and demanded to know why the doctor had shared the information. A few days later, “the police compelled him to sign a statement that his warning constituted ‘illegal behavior.’” Chinese officials would then go on to reprimand at least eight health care professionals for allegedly “spreading rumors,” as well as censor media stories related to the doctors. On January 29, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (director-general of WHO) expressed gratitude for how China was handling COVID-19, and that he would “praise China again and again, because its actions actually helped in reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus to other countries.” Dr. Li was hospitalized with COVID-19 on January 12 and began talking to the media about China’s covering up of the virus, and would ultimately dies from the virus in early February.
4. WHO’s Love Affair with China
From the very beginning of the outbreak in China, the WHO has been stunted by Chinese authorities in its ability to trace the virus. Indeed, in February, 2020, members of the WHO were not “allowed to investigate the source at all … [as] the organization’s leadership had quietly negotiated terms that sidelined its own experts. [The members] would not question China’s initial response or even visit the live-animal market in the city of Wuhan where the outbreak seemed to have originated.” Further, the WHO seemed to be parroting what Chinese authorities were purporting – the same day as the WHO’s tweet about transmission patterns, the Wuhan Health Commission’s public bulletin reported “We have not found proof for human-to-human transmission.” As the world started paying attention to the WHO-China relationship, including former US President Donald Trump withdrawing the United States from the organization, more reports of China’s attempt to downplay the virus were unearthed. In June, 2020, it was reported by the Associated Press that “significant delays be China in the stages” of the COVID-19 outbreak “compromised the WHO’s understanding” of the disease and how it was spreading. Further, the AP “uncovered evidence that China sat on releasing the genome of the virus for more than a week after three government labs had fully decoded it.” All the while, officials at the WHO were mum as evidence continued to mount. In a scathing editorial in The New York Times, a review of internal documents and interviews helped to “provide an inside look at how a disempowered World Health Organization, eager to win access and cooperation from China, has struggled to achieve either.” It is clear that the WHO’s lack of entry into China, and absence of transparency, helped to turn COVID-19 into a global pandemic. A study by the University of Southampton “found that if interventions in [China] could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent and 95 percent respectively – significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease.”
5. WHO & China Part 2
Even more damning than the WHO’s inability to have access to China in the beginning of the pandemic is the continued lack of access. In fact, China had repeatedly blocked the WHO team from entering the country using visa delays and quarantine rules to impede entry. When two WHO experts first visited China in July, 2020, the government placed the members in quarantine and wouldn’t allow them to visit Wuhan. This was followed by months of delays in allowing a full team of experts. In January, 2021, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was “very disappointed” that WHO officials had yet to be granted access to investigate COVID-19’s origins, as a team arrived in China and two experts weren’t allowed entry after testing positive for COVID-19. It should not have taken more than a year for global experts to inspect essentially what is ground zero of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market, the likely culprit of the virus, “has been shut down and thoroughly cleaned out since the disease tore across the globe.” Exactly what researchers can now find will be limited. Nonetheless, the WHO’s relationship with China is unsettling at best, and it seems we may never find factual answers to the many questions that have been raised.
COVID-19 has not only impacted the millions of global citizens it has infected, and the more than 2.6 million that have died, it has shown deeply problematic flaws in the WHO. Its inability to control countries – or even gain access to valuable insight of the virus – is a systematic failure in how the organization functions. Further, its willingness to play politics over health is troublesome. Perhaps if the WHO had listened to Taiwanese officials in December, the world wouldn’t be still counting bodies.