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7 Apr, 2020 10:58

WHO can we trust? Just when coronavirus gave the World Health Organization its moment to shine, it bottled it

WHO can we trust? Just when coronavirus gave the World Health Organization its moment to shine, it bottled it

The World Health Organization (WHO) has veered from downplaying Covid-19 to spreading global panic. What is the point of the body if it fails during the crisis it was born to deal with?

The WHO has predictably become much more prominent this year. As the coronavirus pandemic continues its stranglehold on world affairs, updates from the organization have become a fixture of news updates. Its director, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is now recognizable to a global audience, having previously only been known as the answer to a particularly fiendish pub quiz tie-breaker question.

However, the global body hasn’t exactly been praised to the hilt as a result of its new-found fame. Criticism of the WHO has piled in from various corners. Several US senators have called for Dr Tedros’ resignation over his handling of the crisis, a change.org petition for his removal has so far gained more than 735,000 signatures – neither without warrant. At the precise moment when the world needed it most, the WHO has been found wanting.

Since it was founded in 1948 from the ashes of its League of Nations predecessor, the WHO should have been gearing up for this moment. There have been serious outbreaks in the past – numerous malaria epidemics, the Ebola outbreak and, of course, the ongoing AIDS pandemic, to name a few – but never has one gripped the global consciousness in the same way as Covid-19. 

Despite the aforementioned outbreaks being significantly more lethal, none spread as far, or as fast, forcing the world to grind to a halt or resulting in almost half the globe being under some form of lockdown like this one. If ever there was a time for the WHO to shine, the coronavirus was it; and it has well and truly bottled it. Rather than acting as a cool head in a time of crisis, it has veered from underestimating the scale of the pandemic to making panic-inducing statements after the fact.

The WHO had been made aware of Covid-19 by December last year. In January, it posted a tweet saying: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.”

Then in February, Ghebreyesus declared that there was no need for travel bans, saying the spread of the virus outside China was “minimal and slow.” Fast forward to March 11, and Dr Tedros was telling the world that coronavirus was officially a pandemic and that he was “deeply concerned by alarming levels of inaction” as it spread. Days later, he tweeted that the “pandemic is accelerating.”

Then, at a press conference, he said that “all countries should be able to test all suspected cases” because “they cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded.” Perhaps if countries had been warned about the need for widespread testing sooner; they would have been better placed to implement such measures?

Obviously, hindsight is 20/20 and it is very easy to criticize a person or an organization for not predicting something after it has happened. But the WHO should have been better prepared for this, not least because it already had experience of the spread of SARS, MERS, H5N1 and swine flu in recent years to draw on. Admittedly, none spread as virulently as Covid-19, but it was obvious from those outbreaks that measures such as testing and restricting travel would help slow the spread.

Perhaps it was concerned about again being accused of overreacting, as it had been by some in response to the 2009 swine flu outbreak. Possibly, it too readily believed the low figures being reported by China during the early part of this year. Maybe it assumed countries were more prepared to deal with pandemics than they turned out to be. Whatever the reasons may or may not be, the fact remains that when the world turned to the WHO, it failed. No amount of publicity stunts, like today’s appearance by Lady Gaga, will change that.

Exactly where in the organization’s structure the blame lies is impossible for an outsider to say, but surely the buck must stop eventually with Dr Tedros. His messaging early on in this crisis hugely downplayed the risks and has without question led to a situation that at least had a chance of being avoided. When the dust has settled, and the virus is finally brought under control, a serious question will have to be asked: who can trust the WHO?

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.