In Depth

Debate: did the WHO go easy on China over coronavirus?

The UN agency has been accused of putting politics above public health

Mike Pompeo has claimed that head of the World Health Organization (WHO) failed to confront Beijing about Covid-19 after being “bought by the Chinese government”.

The Telegraph reports that during “a private meeting” with MPs in London, the US secretary of state alleged “that Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organisation’s director-general, had struck a deal with China that helped him secure election”.

“When push came to shove, when it really mattered most” during the subsequent pandemic, people died “because of the deal that was made”, said Pompeo.

Case for the prosecution: ‘the WHO sided with China’

Pompeo’s “comments came as he began a trip to Europe to put pressure on the UK and America’s EU allies to take a tougher stance against China”, says The Telegraph. 

The US politician said the allegation against Tedros was based on a “firm intelligence foundation”, but refrained from “offering evidence”, says Politico. A WHO spokesperson said yesterday that the UN health agency “strongly rejects any ad hominem attacks and unfounded allegations”. 

Nevertheless, both Tedros (pictured above left, with Chinese President Xi Jinping) and the organisation he leads have faced widespread criticism over their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Several weeks before Donald Trump and his administration started attacking the WHO, the agency was already being accused of an overly cosy relationship with Beijing.

From the outset, the WHO was “an outspoken advocate for the Chinese government’s Covid-19 response”, Michael Collins of the Council for Foreign Relations argued in February.

Even as Tedros was praising China’s “openness to sharing information”, Collins wrote, “Chinese officials were busy arresting and punishing citizens for ‘spreading rumours’ about the disease, while online censors controlled the flow of information”.

The WHO also endorsed Chinese government claims that turned out to be false, “saying in mid-January, for example, that human-to-human transmission had not been proven”, The New York Times reports.

More recently, the agency “removed a warning against taking traditional herbal remedies to treat the coronavirus from its websites in mainland China”, the newspaper adds.

Although the director-general of the WHO must always balance politics and public health, previous leaders - including former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland - have been more willing to stand up to Beijing.

“Tedros has never come close to doing what Brundtland did and calling China out,” says The Guardian, referring to her decision during the 2003 Sars outbreak to accuse the East Asian superpower of endangering public health.

“Instead, on 28 January, he had a closed-door meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing, and two days later, he praised Chinese efforts to contain the disease, declaring that China is ‘setting a new standard for outbreak control’,” the paper reports.

“That same day, 30 January, the WHO declared a Pheic [public health emergency of international concern], and began issuing prescriptions to countries around the world.”

Case for the defence: ‘the WHO played a bad hand well’

While the WHO’s approach to China “should be explored further”, says The Africa Report, “the countries attacking the Geneva-based institution would do well not to forget that it only has the means and powers that they wish to grant it”.

The health agency is “too modest in size”, says the news site, and is critically underfunded, with an annual budget of just $5.6bn (£4.4bn) - less than a third of the sum already spent by the NHS on PPE during the Covid-19 outbreak.

“If countries want a better performing WHO, they can do two things: provide the agency an adequate budget and act upon the decisions they adopt,” Keiji Fukuda of the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health told global development news website Devex.

Part of the problem, says The Guardian, is that the organisation has little power to compel action.

“The WHO is less like a military general or elected leader with a strong mandate,” the paper explains, “and more like an underpaid sports coach wary of ‘losing the dressing room’, who can only get their way by charming, grovelling, cajoling and occasionally pleading with the players to do as they say.”

That means making compromises with powerful governments - and not just China.

“In 2005, the US prevented the WHO’s then director-general, the South Korean national Lee Jong-wook, from making a speech about the public health consequences of Hurricane Katrina,” says The Africa Report. 

“Today, Beijing is suspected of controlling the organisation. Essentially, no matter what it does, the WHO is always accused of being either lax or alarmist.”

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