One of the lessons learned from SARS, according to a World Health Organization report from 2003, was that “attempts to conceal cases of an infectious disease, for fear of social and economic consequences, must be recognized as a short-term stop-gap measure that carries a very high price: the potential for high levels of human suffering and death, [and] loss of credibility in the eyes of the international community.”
The WHO’s conspicuous use of the passive voice was a tepid acknowledgment of what had by then become plainly obvious: China had concealed, distorted and restricted the flow of information on SARS to perilous effect on the rest of the world. The Communist Party of China has hardly rehabilitated its reputation for truthfulness in the near-two decades since.
Late last year, the WHO, along with the rest of the world, had good reason to receive initial information from China on the strange new virus emerging out of Wuhan with some skepticism. The extraordinary early measures the country was taking to contain its spread, after all, seemed wildly out of proportion with Beijing’s official numbers of infected and dead. Indeed, months ago, there was reason to worry that China might not be sharing the full extent of its outbreak, and information has emerged since that all but confirms China again deceived the world. And it did it while the WHO openly praised its commitment to "transparency.”
Some attribute the WHO’s early credulousness regarding COVID-19 as a symptom of its excessively close relationship with China. Others cite the typical disarray of a heavily bureaucratic organization inured by internal roadblocks. Whatever the reason, the effect has been that the WHO has appeared perpetually two steps behind during the crucial early months of the outbreak.
The organization tweeted about a lack of evidence of human-to-human transmission on Jan. 14 – about the same time that Taiwan, which didn’t wait for scientific certainty to take preventative measures, was already isolating infected people. The WHO also declared rather decisively in February that asymptomatic transmission was “rare,” even as early papers seemed to indicate that was not the case.
The WHO has long opposed travel restrictions to slow the spread of infection, yet countries that closed their borders shortly after their first confirmed coronavirus cases – Greece, for example – have so far seen success in controlling the severity of their outbreaks. And it has advised against the wearing of masks by “healthy” people, even as other countries – South Korea, Austria, the Czech Republic, the United States – immediately, or eventually, recognized their value in preventing shedding by asymptomatic carriers.
Indeed, many of the countries that have best controlled their outbreaks combined all these measures early – they didn’t wait for permission from the WHO.
Canada’s response to COVID-19, on the other hand, has moved pretty much in lockstep with that of the WHO. The federal government didn’t shut down the border to international travellers until March 16, five days after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and three days after Health Minister Patty Hajdu called border measures “highly ineffective.” Both Ms. Hajdu and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited WHO recommendations when previously defending the decision to keep Canada’s border open.
Canada, like the WHO, was slow to recommend the use of non-medical masks in situations where physical distancing is not possible. It was slow to approve serological tests, despite their use in other countries, because, as a Health Canada spokesperson told CBC, the WHO does not recommend them for clinical diagnosis.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump lashed out at the WHO, accusing it of bungling its early response to COVID-19 and announcing that U.S. funding for the organization would be put on hold. It was a rich deflection from a leader who spent February comparing COVID-19 to the seasonal flu and much of March fighting with governors over their requests for resources to fight the pandemic. But on the substance of his attack, the President was not wrong. Pulling money from the organization during a crisis is rather boneheaded, particularly when it is essential in getting resources on the ground in developing countries. But critically reviewing the performance of the organization, even in the midst of a pandemic, is not.
One of the lessons from SARS, according to our own SARS Commission, was that “reasonable steps to reduce risk should not await scientific certainty.” As Canada continues to battle the spread of COVID-19, it may be prudent to tweak that advice ever so slightly: “Reasonable steps to reduce risk should not await permission from the WHO.” Canada has models for relatively successful containment in countries such as Taiwan and South Korea – countries that, notably, didn’t wait for WHO instruction to impose lockdown measures.
When the time comes to ease up on travel restrictions and isolation measures here in Canada, perhaps that’s where we should be looking for guidance, too – and not with indiscriminate fidelity to the WHO.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.