For those wondering about what’s wrong with the World Health Organization, this Wall Street Journal op-ed from Lanhee J. Chen should explain the issues:
The World Health Organization isn’t just “China centric,” as President Trump called it on Tuesday. It is also broken and compromised. The WHO fell short in its dithering reaction to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which claimed more than 11,000 lives. Now its response to the coronavirus pandemic shows it is willing to put politics ahead of public health. The way the WHO has consistently acted to placate China’s leaders makes clear the need for fundamental reform.
The U.S. is the biggest financial contributor to the WHO—more than $400 million in 2019, when China sent only $44 million, according to the U.S. State Department. Mr. Trump suggested that the U.S. might hold its funding while his administration takes a “good look” at what the country is getting for its money. He and Congress should go further.
While Washington pays, Beijing works behind the scenes to influence WHO leaders. The current director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was backed strongly by the Chinese government during his campaign for the job. Mr. Tedros was a controversial pick, dogged by allegations of having covered up cholera outbreaks in his native Ethiopia, where he served as health minister (2005-12) and foreign minister (2012-16). During those years, China invested in Ethiopia and lent it billions of dollars. Shortly after winning his WHO election, Mr. Tedros traveled to Beijing and lauded the country’s health-care system: “We can all learn something from China.”
Under Mr. Tedros’s leadership, the WHO has accepted China’s falsehoods about the coronavirus and helped launder them into respectable-looking public-health assessments.
On Jan. 14, before an official WHO delegation had even visited China, the group parroted Beijing’s claim that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” Two weeks later, after China had reported more than 4,500 cases of the virus and over 70 people in other countries were sick with it, Mr. Tedros visited China and heaped praise on its leaders for their “transparency.”
Recall that China waited six weeks after patients first saw symptoms in Wuhan to institute a lockdown there. During this time Chinese authorities censored and punished physicians who tried to sound the alarm, repeatedly denied that the virus could be transmitted between humans, and held a public banquet in Wuhan for tens of thousands of families. In the meantime, more than five million people left or fled Wuhan, according to the city’s mayor. This included the patient with the first confirmed case of the virus in America.
The WHO finally declared a public-health emergency on Jan. 30, after nearly 10,000 cases of the virus had been confirmed. China’s reported figures rose in early February to more than 17,000 infections and 361 deaths, yet Mr. Tedros rebuked Mr. Trump for restricting travel from China and urged other countries not to follow suit. He called the virus’s spread outside China “minimal and slow.” It took until March 11 for the WHO to declare a pandemic. By that point the official world-wide case count was 118,000 people in 114 countries.
China’s influence is also apparent in the WHO’s exclusion of Taiwan. The WHO didn’t even bother replying to Taiwanese inquiries in December about whether the coronavirus could, contrary to Beijing’s claims, be transmitted between humans.
Last month a Hong Kong TV reporter asked Bruce Aylward, who leads the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus, if the organization would reconsider its refusal to allow Taiwan to join. Dr. Aylward, on a remote video connection, sits silent and expressionless for nearly 10 seconds before the reporter prompts him again: “Hello?”
“I’m sorry,” he finally says, “I couldn’t hear—I can’t hear your question, Yvonne.”
“Let me repeat the question,” she says.
“No, that’s OK. Let’s move to another one then.”
When she presses him on Taiwan, he terminates the connection. The reporter calls back and tries a different tack: “I just want to see if you can comment a bit on how Taiwan has done so far in terms of containing the virus.”
His reply: “Well, we’ve already talked about China, and, you know, when you look across all the different areas of China, they’ve actually all done quite a good job.”
The exchange demonstrates how the WHO prioritizes politics over public health. It has internalized Beijing’s view of Taiwan and seeks to praise China’s leaders at every turn. And at no point during the crisis has the WHO substantively investigated the Chinese regime’s claims about the virus or been transparent about the thinking behind its decisions.
As the biggest financial contributor to the WHO, the U.S. has the leverage to push for radical reform. Congress should condition all future funding on the WHO’s explaining in detail how it reaches its public-health decisions and rigorously and independently investigating the extent of disease outbreaks.
The U.S. should work aggressively to change the culture and leadership of the WHO. The Trump administration took a good first step in January by creating a special envoy at the State Department focused on countering China’s attempts to control international organizations. The WHO’s next director-general must not be a rubber stamp for Beijing.
If the WHO not only does not decrease risk but actually increases it and if it does not reduce the transactional costs of dealing with international health problems, it does not perform any function to which we should subscribe. Time for it to go.