The leadership of the World Health Organization will face a review into its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic – though it remains unclear when an inquiry might happen, and how independent any investigation would be.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday that he would initiate a review “at the earliest appropriate moment.” But that promise – which was formalized in a resolution that conspicuously avoided naming China – looked unlikely to dull U.S. anger at the United Nations health agency.
The Trump administration said Monday that the WHO had “failed at its core mission” by not demanding more transparency from China at the beginning of the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has since killed more than 318,000 people worldwide.
Monday’s virtual meeting in Geneva of the World Health Assembly, the body that governs the WHO, capped weeks of escalating verbal attacks between the U.S. and China. Addressing the assembly by video link, President Xi Jinping said China acted with “openness and transparency and responsibility” and that it would support a WHO-led review after the pandemic is tackled.
While the U.S. was highly critical of the global health body, Beijing opened its wallet in support of it. In his address, Mr. Xi promised to contribute US$2-billion to the global fight against COVID-19.
That contribution would equal the WHO’s entire annual budget, and more than make up for the US$400-million that disappeared from the WHO’s finances when President Donald Trump announced last month that his administration would halt payments to the organization over its handling of the outbreak.
Neither Beijing nor Washington were expected to support a resolution for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the organization’s response to the pandemic, without setting a timeline for when that process would begin.
The draft resolution, which was sponsored by the European Union, appeared to have the support of the necessary two-thirds of the WHO’s 194 member states, including all 27 EU members and all 54 African states, as well as Canada, Japan, Britain and Russia, among other countries.
But while those parties reached agreement on the need for some kind of inquiry, the draft resolution settled little else. “It’s a question of how much do you want to politicize this,” said Ilona Kickbusch, a health consultant and former WHO employee who is an expert on how the organization functions.
“There will be a review. There is always a review. The main question – and the document skirts around that – is when exactly should it be, who organizes it and how independent can it be?"
On China’s contribution to the WHO, Ms. Kickbusch noted that China’s President had been vague about how that US$2-billion might be deployed, leaving open the possibility that some or all of the money could be dispersed as direct aid to countries in Africa and other parts of the developing world that have been hit hard by the virus.
Ahead of the draft resolution, the U.S. had supported a more sharply worded Australian call for a probe that would have seen an inspection team – akin to those the UN deploys when seeking to uncover weapons of mass destruction – sent to the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated late last year.
But while Australia, which has faced threats of economic retaliation in the form of a Chinese threat to stop buying Australian beef, backed away from that call on Monday and supported the EU-led resolution, the U.S. continued to criticize both Beijing and the WHO.
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“There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives,” Alex Azar, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, told the opening of the two-day World Health Assembly meeting, which was largely held online this year.
“In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak, at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world,” Mr. Azar added.
China has already been accused by the U.S. and others of wielding too much influence over the WHO. That clout was on display Monday as Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a renegade province rather than an independent state, was excluded from the online meeting.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the snub showed that the WHO, and Dr. Tedros in particular, were beholden to the Chinese leadership. “The Director-General’s lack of independence deprives the Assembly of Taiwan’s renowned scientific expertise on pandemic disease, and further damages the WHO’s credibility and effectiveness at a time when the world needs it the most.”
While China was not listed among the 122 countries that supported the EU resolution calling for a COVID-19 inquiry, Mr. Xi said his country would back an investigation.
“China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 after it is brought under control to sum up experience and address deficiencies,” he said. “This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by the WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner.”
Mr. Xi’s position lined up neatly with a report presented to the World Health Assembly on Monday by a seven-person advisory committee – a team that included Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer – that said a review of the WHO’s performance during the pandemic “may be useful, at an appropriate time.” The report warned that “conducting such a review during the heat of the response, even in a limited manner, could disrupt WHO’s ability to respond effectively.”
Ms. Kickbusch said that the U.S., despite its harsh criticisms of the WHO, had been involved in the negotiations that led to the drafting of Monday’s EU-led resolution. The U.S., she said, was no more interested than China was in giving the WHO new supranational powers of investigation.
Mr. Azar’s attacks on China and the WHO, Ms. Kickbusch said, appeared to have been aimed at convincing voters in the U.S., rather than swaying the other countries participating in the World Health Assembly. “I think what the U.S. is trying to do right now is stick to its guns, because Trump supporters want to see that.”
Dr. Tedros, meanwhile, used his own remarks at Monday’s meeting to make a plea for better co-operation. “We do not need a review to tell us that we must all do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again,” the WHO chief said. “Whatever lessons there are to learn from this pandemic, the greatest failing would be to not learn from them, and to leave the world in the same vulnerable state it was before.”
Globe health columnist André Picard examines the complex issues around reopening schools and businesses after the coronavirus lockdown. He says whatever happens as provinces reopen, there's also a second wave of COVID-19 illnesses looming in the fall. André was talking via Instagram Live with The Globe's Madeleine White.
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