World Health Organization under scrutiny as it travels China’s tightrope on the coronavirus

While China acted quickly following Xi’s intervention, by blocking several major cities and pouring resources into the battle against the virus, it has maintained strict control over information on the virus and efforts to control its spread veered from the draconian side.

WHO’s praise for China’s response has led critics to question the relationship between the two entities. The United Nations agency relied on member funding and cooperation to function, giving wealthy member states like China significant influence. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of China’s dominance over the WHO is its success in blocking Taiwan’s access to the organism, a position that could have very real consequences for the people of Taiwan if the virus seized it there.

WHO’s stance towards China has also renewed a longstanding debate that WHO, founded 72 years ago, is independent enough to enable it to achieve its goal.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not answered questions related to Beijing’s relationship with the WHO. A WHO spokesman directed CNN to comments made by Tedros this week, when he praised China again for “making us safer”.

“I know there is a lot of pressure on the WHO when we appreciate what China is doing, but because of the pressure we should not fail to tell the truth,” said the WHO director. “We don’t say anything to appease anyone. It’s because it’s the truth.”

Tedros added that “we are giving qualified recognition and in reality my call is please recognize as a world, as a globe what China is doing and help them and show solidarity”.

Mixing health and politics

WHO was founded in 1948 under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) still pregnant, with the mandate to coordinate international health policy, in particular on infectious diseases. Since then it has had many successes, firstly, the eradication of smallpox and a 99% reduction in cases of polio, as well as fighting chronic diseases and combating tobacco consumption.
But in its seven-year history, the WHO has rarely been without his critics. They argue that it is overly bureaucratic, bizarrely structured, too dependent on a handful of major donors and often hampered by political concerns. After his election in 2017, Ethiopian politician Tedros became the last WHO general manager a promise large-scale reforms.
The first African to hold office, Tedros took over following WHO poor response recognized by itself the Ebola epidemic 2013-2016 in West Africa. WHO took five months to declare a public health emergency of international interest (PHEIC) on Ebola, a delay that “undoubtedly contributed to the unprecedented extent of the epidemic”, according to an academic evaluation.
The failure he was blamed partly on the cumbersome and complex bureaucracy of the WHO – it is made up of six regional offices which are only vaguely controlled by the Geneva headquarters. Other factors blamed for Ebola’s failure include an overstretched and insufficient surveillance team and political pressure from West African governments unwilling to suffer the economic blow caused by a PHEIC statement.
Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People on January 28, 2020 in Beijing, China.
But while Ebola may have highlighted these problems, experts have sounded the alarm for years. In a 2014 reportFormer WHO consultant Charles Clift wrote that most observers – including many former insiders – agreed that the organization “is too politicized, too bureaucratic, too dominated by medical personnel seeking solutions medical problems often social and economic, too shy to deal with controversial issues, too tense and too slow to adapt to change. ”

“WHO is both a technical agency and a decision-making body,” wrote Clift. “Excessive intrusion of political considerations into his technical work can damage his authority and credibility as a standard-bearer of health.”

Unlike organizations such as M̩decins Sans Fronti̬res (MSF), WHO usually does not have its own teams in the field to collect information, but relies on data provided by Member States, filtered through regional organizations Рa structure he was blamed for delays in the Ebola emergency declaration.

This means that WHO is only informed as its Member States want. If a country where an epidemic is developing does not share the data, the WHO can do little about it.

With a government like China, with a historical aversion to transparency and sensitivity to international criticism, this can be a problem.

Taiwan in the dark

It is on the Taiwan issue that Beijing’s political swing to the WHO is clearer.

In a passionate speech Last year before the World Health Assembly (WHA), the organization’s annual meeting in Geneva, Luke Browne, the young health minister of the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent, asked that Taiwan be granted a place. at the table.

“There simply is no basic principle that Taiwan should not be here … the only reason it is not here now is because the Beijing government does not like the current Taiwanese government,” said Browne.

Despite Browne’s speech and the intervention of several other member states, from Belize and Haiti in the Caribbean to the African kingdom of Eswatini and the small Pacific nation of Nauru, the proposal to include Taiwan was quickly canceled from the agenda, as it has been every year since 2016.

Taiwan is an autonomous democratic island of 23.7 million people off the coast of China. It was never ruled by the government of the People’s Republic, but is claimed by the Beijing authorities as part of their territory. Beijing prevents Taiwan from participating in many international organizations unless it does so in a “one China” way, such as calling himself “Chinese Taipei” at the Olympics.

Excluding Beijing Island from international organizations usually has no global consequences. Health is an area, however, where an effective international response requires that all governments are equally connected and informed.

“Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO makes its population vulnerable during this crisis – the lack of direct and timely channels to the WHO has already led to inaccurate case reports in Taiwan,” said China expert Natasha Kassam, Taiwan and diplomacy from Lowy Institute in Australia. “The Taiwanese authorities have complained about the lack of access to WHO data and assistance.”

Similar concerns were raised during the acute acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003, when Taiwanese scientists have complained they were massacred by WHO officials, who told them to ask the authorities about the disease in China.

The issue has global implications: Kassam stressed that around 50 million foreign travelers pass through Taiwan’s largest airport each year, “with the expectation that Taiwan will receive advice from the WHO on any public health problem.”

“Taiwan’s health care system has consistently been ranked as one of the best in the world – and at a time like this, every country should put policy aside to focus on containing the virus,” said Kassam.

Since coronavirus cases have been reported in Taiwan – which has important commercial and cultural ties to China, regardless of political discord – the WHO could not even settle what to call the island. Talking to reporters last month, a spokesman used the bizarre construction of “China, Taiwan;” while a February 4 report he turned it upside down and listed “Taiwan, China”, but made a mistake in the number of cases, based on data from Beijing and not Taipei. Subsequent reports have since completely abandoned the term Taiwan, instead including “Taipei and surroundings” in a list of the cities affected in China.

When he approached the WHA last year, Browne predicted just this kind of confusion, saying “we all know that the PRC does not exercise control and authority over Taiwan and cannot reasonably be expected to represent him here.”

Trapped in the middle

Just as Beijing’s domination of the United Nations means that it is likely that Taiwan will never regain its headquarters, it is unlikely that the WHO will reverse course on this issue until Beijing does. While the allies of Taiwan I spoke in favor since the coronavirus epidemic broke out, China has a much more diplomatic weight that it can bring to fruition.
And this is the fundamental problem with the WHO: it cannot treat Member States in the same way because they are not the same. During the cold war, it was the United States that had too much influence, leading the Soviet Union and its allies to leave from 1949 to 1956. The United States maintain great dominance because of its position as one of the major individual lenders WHO, as well as other major economies such as Japan and the United Kingdom, and private donors such as the Gates Foundation. Although it has not historically been a big financier, the WHO he praised China’s “growing contribution” to global health initiatives.
In addition to financial matters, WHO is also directly controlled by its Member States, which appoint and elect the general manager of the organization and set his agenda. This means that the WHO cannot afford, politically or financially, to antagonize countries such as the United States or China that exercise outsize influence over other nations.
World Health Organization (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference following a WHO emergency committee to discuss whether the Coronavirus epidemic, similar to the SARS virus, which started in China, constitutes a international health emergency, on January 30, 2020 in Geneva.
“If Tedros wants the WHO to stay informed about what’s going on in China and influences how the country handles the epidemic, it cannot afford to antagonize the notoriously touchy Chinese government – even if it is clear that the country has been less than completely transparent about the initial stages epidemic, and perhaps still is “, Kai Kupferschmidt he wrote in the journal Science this week.

Indeed, if Tedros had done so, there would probably have been a number of articles criticizing the WHO for needlessly offending China in a time of crisis and hampering its ability to operate.

Thomas Abraham, associate professor at the Center for Journalism and Studies on the University of Hong Kong and former WHO consultant, sums it up well: “WHO, and also China, is damned if you do it, damn if you are not. ”


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