When the pandemic passes, which it will, there will be a reckoning to determine who could have stopped it early and did not. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has suggested that it would have to be carried out by the World Health Organisation: “Obviously, after the crisis has abated I think the time will be right to conduct a kind of ‘lessons learned’ [inquiry] and I’m sure the World Health Organisation will be at the forefront of that.”
This is a terrible idea. WHO is full of good people with good intentions, but as a body it has very serious questions to answer about its own conduct before we trust it with looking at that of others.
There are three charges against WHO. First, it failed to prepare the world for a pandemic, spending the years since the Sars and ebola alarms talking more about climate change, obesity and tobacco, while others, including the Wellcome Trust and the Gates foundation, actually set up a coalition for epidemic preparedness innovation, and countries like Singapore and South Korea put in place measures to cope with an outbreak like SARS in the future.
Second, once the epidemic began in China, WHO downplayed its significance, tweeting as late as January 14 that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus”, when it had already been warned by the Taiwanese health authorities among others of strong evidence for medical staff in Wuhan becoming ill.
The Chinese government at this stage had known for weeks that the virus was spreading, probably person to person, yet WHO then sycophantically praised the Chinese government. “China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response,” said WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former foreign minister of Ethiopia, a country run by a repressive regime heavily dependent on China. “China is really good at keeping people alive,” echoed the assistant director-general, Bruce Aylward, on 3 March.
On 29 March, a Hong Kong-based journalist asked Aylward to comment on Taiwan’s highly-successful efforts to defeat the virus. At first Aylward ignored the question, claiming not to have heard it. When the journalist offered to repeat it, strangely he said no, he would rather move on to another question. When she pressed, the call was mysteriously cut off. When the journalist called back and asked the question again, he answered a different question, talking about China, rather than Taiwan. The background here is that China is a big funder of WHO and insists that Taiwan be excluded from the organisation since it does not recognise Taiwan’s existence as a separate country. Taiwan banned travel from China very early in the pandemic.
The third charge against WHO is that it has failed before. When the ebola outbreak in West Africa that was to kill 11,000 people began in late 2013, on its own admission WHO hindered the fight against the virus, obsessed with not letting others find out what was happening. In April 2014, the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres announced that the outbreak was out of control. They were promptly slapped down by a WHO spokesman. Others tried again in June to alert WHO. It was not until August that WHO admitted the gravity of the situation.
Later WHO admitted its “initial response was slow and insufficient, we were not aggressive in alerting the world, our surge capacity was limited, we did not work effectively in coordination with other partners, there were shortcomings in risk communication.” All of which is true again today.
In September 2014 at the height of the ebola epidemic, Margaret Chan, the then director-general wrote an article in which she called climate change the “defining issue of the 21st century [which] cannot be contained by doctors in hazmat suits, patients in isolation wards, or hopes that a vaccine or cure is somewhere on the horizon,” implicitly downplaying ebola yet again. In October she gave her apologies to an ebola conference to attend one in Moscow on tobacco.
WHO gives the impression it would rather reprimand rich countries for climate change or bad eating habits than worry about epidemics. It’s also a bit obsessed with celebrities. In 2018, Tedros and the singer Lady Gaga jointly wrote an article in the Guardian about suicide. On 28 March this year, Tedros found time to tweet about having had “a very good call with @ladygaga.” He added: “And happy birthday @ladygaga! I am so touched that you’re spending this moment on finding ways to support the world during #COVID19. I send you my best wishes! Thank you for spreading kindness at such an important moment for all of us! Together!”
It is an open secret among international diplomats and public health experts that WHO is “not fit for mission” (as one of them put it to me), riddled with politics and bureaucracy. Given its previous failures and the warning that was Sars, its leadership has no excuse for reacting so oddly, and so tardily, to the current crisis.