President Donald Trump’s April 14 decision to freeze U.S. funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) provoked widespread criticism even as his spars with China have been widely condemned. While Trump’s demeanor throughout the pandemic has been imprudent, his hawkish stance on China is not.
The WHO has betrayed its mission to safeguard international health by failing to validate Chinese information on COVID-19, such as when it advised against international travel restrictions on January 10th, only a week before COVID-19 spread throughout Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan and subsequently the world. Meanwhile, China has committed to an alternate reality in which the U.S. released the novel coronavirus and Australia is “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes” for the crime of supporting an international inquest into the virus’s origin. America must form a worldwide coalition with Australia, Sweden and other nations around the world to restore the WHO’s integrity, probe the cause of the virus and prevent another epidemic.
Despite its role as a respectable and important player in world health, the WHO’s unsuspecting attitude toward China and its handling of the virus in January has undermined its central mission. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom has compromised the organization’s leadership in the wake of China and its allies’ assurance of his recent electoral victory. Those ties call into question why Adhanom and other leaders failed to do their due diligence on information coming from China early in the pandemic. For example, the WHO repeatedly downplayed the virus’s threat at the beginning of this year; on January 14th, the organization quoted Chinese authorities and stated publicly that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” While there existed little independent evidence to the contrary at that time, the WHO placed full faith in reporting data uncovered from the Chinese government, even though Beijing has previously concealed outbreaks of other diseases from the public, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
Only after nearly 10,000 cases were confirmed did the WHO declare the virus a global emergency. On Jan. 30, Adhanom stated that “the Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak” after it had silenced doctors and underreported cases. Before it even declared an emergency, the WHO let public health take a back seat to politics in December when it refused to share information with the Taiwanese government about person-to-person transmission. Had the WHO and Chinese government reacted even a week sooner, the number of cases internationally could have been reduced by 66%. This reflects poorly on the WHO as an impartial protector of international health, as they failed to counteract Chinese misinformation surrounding the virus both domestically and internationally.
We cannot in good faith fail to hold the WHO accountable even as we criticize Trump for similar missteps. Just as he is culpable for repeatedly lying about COVID-19’s potential for community transmission in the U.S., the WHO is remiss for failing to verify or contextualize China’s information. Since the pandemic only hit the U.S. heavily after reaching Europe and Asia, Trump’s deceptions have only hurt Americans. The WHO, as an international organization, is responsible for all of us.
Assigning blame might seem irresponsible in the heat of a crisis, but the gravity of the situation necessitates it. For months, China has disseminated misinformation about the rise of the virus. From official disinformation in diplomatic press releases to bad-faith foreign aid, economic intimidation and sowing panic in America, China is waging a global war of misinformation. A Chinese diplomat even asked Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth to sponsor a resolution commending Beijing’s reaction to the virus. The Chinese government has outed itself as a bad actor, and based on the WHO’s favoritism toward China during the pandemic, the organization will likely drift further into their camp.
World leaders must wade through the Chinese government’s threats and bluster to uncover the virus’s origin. And if China is not willing to cooperate with an international, impartial investigation into COVID-19’s origins, then the world must pressure it to comply. For example, the Australian government is now lobbying to grant the WHO power and jurisdiction as wide-ranging as those afforded nuclear weapons inspectors. Other countries must follow suit. We in the U.S. and across the globe must pressure our leaders to revitalize the WHO’s image and reform the conditions that bred the virus. Otherwise, the world’s suffering will have been in vain.
Sean Anderson (19Ox, 21B) is from Atlanta.