In an effort to deflect blame for the Covid-19 pandemic, world leaders are scapegoating the World Health Organization, a body that has been consistently undermined, underfunded and largely ignored by the international community for years.
The World Health Organization is under attack. Indeed it’s very existence in its current form is in jeopardy, especially considering that US President Donald Trump is so disgusted with the organization’s perceived response to the coronavirus pandemic that he recently announced that he would be withdrawing US government funding for the WHO. This is a major blow for the organization given that the US contributes around €400 million of its €2.1 billion annual budget. Why did Trump throw his tantrum? He claims that the WHO was responsible for “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus.”
The issue of whether the WHO mismanaged the pandemic is highly subjective and could take some time to untangle. So let’s first address the issue of whether the WHO covered up the spread of the coronavirus. In reality, it’s difficult to argue this point, once the facts have been examined. On February 5th this year, the organization said $675 million was needed “for new coronavirus preparedness and response global plan.” However, almost one month later, on March 4th, the WHO had received only $1.2 million in contributions. Though eventually, the required funding was raised, the simple fact is that world leaders, initially at least, decided to ignore the WHO’s warning, and its plea for financial help in tackling Covid-19. It seems extremely disingenuous of any world leader to accuse the WHO of covering up the spread of the coronavirus. If the $675 million had been provided to the WHO when it made the request, would it have meant that the spread of the coronavirus could have been restricted and a pandemic avoided? We’ll never know, but it is tempting to speculate that the expenditure of a few hundred million dollars back in February could have meant that it would not have been necessary to spend trillions of dollars on economic bailouts a few months later. At best, world leaders missed the opportunity to make a very shrewd investment in pandemic prevention, but at worst, they have been guilty of financial and budgetary mismanagement of the highest order. Instead of educating themselves about the Covid-19 threat, world leaders largely ignored the alarm raised by the WHO. To cite an oft-quoted phrase, “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
The WHO has been criticized for initially declining to declare the coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” This was obviously, in hindsight, a horrendous mistake. The organization has been accused of taking China at its word in the context of the coronavirus rather than independently evaluating the outbreak in order to distinguish between fact and the alleged fiction conjured up by the Chinese authorities. This accusation is justified, but the important point here is that the WHO did make attempts to independently evaluate the Covid-19 outbreak in China, but were stonewalled by the country’s authorities.
In mid-January, the Chinese authorities turned down the WHO’s request to send in a team of scientific observers to Hubei province, ground zero for the outbreak. Commentators say that this is one of the major criticisms that can be aimed at the WHO’s director general Tedros Adhanom, that is, when the Chinese authorities refused to play ball, he should have publicly denounced them. Instead he kept quiet before announcing in February that China was “setting a new standard for outbreak control.”
However, as China’s refusal to agree to the WHO’s proposal to send scientific observers into Hubei demonstrates, the WHO is only as powerful the international community is prepared to let it be. It is not able to compel its members to take action and cannot impose sanctions on those that decide to ignore its recommendations. Indeed, members of the WHO’s emergency committee are known to have become increasingly exasperated by the fact that one of the major battles the organization has to fight is convincing its members to actually listen to its advice.
The truth is that the international community’s support for the WHO has been diminishing for a number of years. Perhaps more troubling for the organization has been the fact that the international community’s financial backing for the WHO has also been on the wane – for example, US contributions to the WHO fell from $513 million in 2017 to $419 million in 2019. To put this in context, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, to take a random example, has an annual budget of €1.4 billion. Simply put, the international community has, over a period of a number of years, placed much less value on the work of the WHO.
Supporters of Tedros say that the decline in interest – and financial backing – from the WHO’s traditional backers, such as the US, explains why the organization’s director general was reluctant to lambast China for its lack of cooperation. There is a view that Adhanom realized that, with the WHO’s resources gradually diminishing, its salvation lay in courting, and winning the backing of, the world’s second largest economy. Tedros devotees will argue that the fact that the Chinese government did eventually allow WHO observers to enter the country, on February 8th and that this is vindication that his diplomatic approach did, ultimately, pay off.
Has the severe condemnation of his handling of the crisis had racist undertones? Tedros certainly thinks so. In early April he told a press conference: “I can tell you personal attacks have been going on for more than two, three months. Abuse, or racist comments, giving me names, black or negro. I’m proud of being black, proud of being negro. I don’t care, to be honest ... even death threats. I don’t give a damn.”
Insiders’ tales of Tedros’ election as director general of the WHO in 2017 suggest that it was an extremely bitter contest unbefitting of an organization such as the United Nations, which exists to foster peace and cooperation between nations. The election, which was described by one insider as “really nasty” was characterized by a split between African and Asian nations backing Tedros and the nations that traditionally have wielded significant influence within the WHO – that is to say, the US, UK and Canada – backing Tedros’ rival for the post, the British doctor David Nabarro. As the election unfolded, the contest became increasingly unpleasant, with one US academic accusing Tedros of trying to hide a cholera epidemic during his time as a member of the Ethiopian government. Despite the mudslinging, Tedros was ultimately victorious and became the first ever African to hold the post of WHO director general.
Any failure of the WHO in tackling the coronavirus pandemic is ultimately a failure on the part of the international community to sufficiently invest in the organization in order to boost its ability to combat Covid-19. A fractured, underfunded and largely ignored body, the WHO is a sorry reflection of the current state of international relations. With certain forces around the world looking to undermine transnational bodies – such as the European Union – it was only a matter of time before the WHO got caught in the inevitable crossfire.