Has WHO mishandled pandemic in the year since declaring global emergency?
Published: Jan 29, 2021 09:31 PM


Exactly one year ago when World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global public health emergency to alert countries of the risk of the disease, China had reported more than 9,000 cases, while outside China, there were only 83 cases reported in 18 countries and regions, including one in the US.

When countries turned a deaf ear to the warning of Ghebreyesus and a lot more in the following months, the result is what we see today: global confirmed cases have topped the 100 million mark and the pandemic hit 191 countries and regions, with the world's No.1 economy topping the list in both the number of confirmed cases and deaths. 

WHO, the global guardian of public health, is needed now more than ever, and it has an irreplaceable role in strengthening multilateral cooperation and ensuring the fair allocation of medical resources among developed and developing countries, experts said. 

However, as an advisory body it cannot enforce advise and guidelines made to prevent the spread of the virus, and its leading role has been hindered by geopolitical tensions among its members, especially the West's smear campaign against China and the WHO, experts said.

A year later, as the world starts to look forward with hope, we really need to rethink WHO's role in a public health crisis, and questions have been raised for a year, such as "Did WHO mishandle the pandemic?" "Has it turned into a 'Chinese health organization?'" and "How should it be reformed?"

'Mishandled' pandemic?

Along with the rapid surge of cases worldwide, the world has seen increased critics and smears against the WHO rather than strengthened global collaboration and support in tackling the pandemic, analysts said.

A recently published COVID-19 response report by an independent panel criticized the WHO for being "underpowered to do the job expected of it," and questioned why the WHO's Emergency Committee did not meet until the third week of January in 2020 and did not declare an international emergency until its second meeting on January 30.

Chen Xi, an assistant professor of public health at Yale University, told the Global Times on Friday that the WHO was dealing with a new virus, and decisions made amid uncertainties were difficult, and that the epidemic began to worsen in China in late December to early January, coinciding with the Christmas and New Year holidays in the West, which impeded a timely response.

The first call made between China's director of the centers for disease control and prevention and his American counterpart was on January 3, 2020, after the latter returned from a New Year holiday. 

And the WHO's independence has been restrained as the bulk of its funding comes from its member states, Chen said.

According to the WHO's timeline on its COVID-19 response, it tweeted that there was a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan on January 4 and provided detailed information to its member states and advised them to take precautions to reduce the risk on January 5, 2020. Its first disease outbreak news report was sent out to global media on the same day. 

The panel also pointed out that even when the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the loudest alarm possible under International Health Regulations, many countries took minimal action internally and internationally in response to the warning.

Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital, told the Global Times on Friday that the window of controlling the disease was still open for the world when the WHO made the declaration, and it's a pity that not all countries actively responded to the WHO's appeal.

Now the window has been completely shut and the attempt to control the disease for some countries requires mobilizing the whole society at a very high cost, Wang said. 

As of Friday, one-fifth of the world's confirmed cases was recorded in the US and its number is expected to continue to soar. Chinese health experts said it's unlikely for the US to control the disease by the end of this year even with Joe Biden's tightened measures. 

Compared to the scientific questions and critics, the WHO apparently was lashed out harder by the West for "bending to China's might" and "helping China hide the outbreak," and this firm belief prompted Donald Trump to formally withdraw the US from the WHO in July 2020. 

Chinese health experts said that Western countries have been used to the West-dominated world order and international organizations, and it cannot tolerate China's growing strength.

"Western countries led by the US, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, used the pandemic as a tool to contain China's growing influence and forced the WHO to be their accomplice. The WHO cautiously avoided jumping into the trap of Western politicians and maintained its independence, which made it the target of the West," Li Haidong, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Friday, noting that both the WHO and China were at the center of the blame because of this. 

China's rapid economy recovery and huge potential to recover has scared Western countries, which have seen their economies recede for almost a year, and this further escalated their slander against China, Li said. 

Jin Dongyan, a professor at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, blamed Western countries for never respecting science or the WHO, and he said that it seems many Western countries place a higher value on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When accusing the WHO and China, countries have to reflect on their own response to COVID-19, Wang said. 

"China was doing a closed-book exam, while many other countries were doing an open-book exam but still failed," he said. 

China's cooperation with WHO

China was the only country inviting WHO experts for origin-tracing international cooperation last February and July, and has shared China's experience in epidemic prevention and control candidly with other countries and the WHO. 

Wang, who was also a member of the China-WHO joint expert team and escorted the WHO experts to Beijing, Central China's Hubei Province, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, and South China's Guangdong Province in February 2020, said China showed the team the places they wanted to visit, including hospitals, communities and quarantine facilities, and the WHO experts were surprised and encouraged by China's prevention and control measures. 

Many of the WHO's recommendations were consistent with what China did, Wang said.  

China is the first country to experience the outbreak, and China managed all confirmed cases and close contacts based on the principle of human to human transmission even when there was no related evidence at the early stage, Wang said. 

Since the SARS outbreak in 2003, China has strengthened cooperation with the WHO, and no country should view the cooperation in a biased way, according to Wang. 

Chinese experts said that China has played a prominent role in cooperating with the WHO, and member states have to take concrete measures to reform the WHO to make it more efficient, and its role strengthened but not undermined.

Chinese experts said the WHO has to make a detailed plan for its funding to avoid the influence of some member states' sudden withdrawal, such as more flexibly arrange the funding according to the urgency of the projects. 

And the WHO has to update its regulations and set clear clauses for a global warning system to improve the efficiency of countries' response.  

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