World

Is the World Health Organization Putting the World’s Health First?

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference after a meeting of the Emergency Committee on the coronavirus in Geneva, Switzerland January 30, 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
While its rank-and-file do essential work, its leadership shamefully appeases Beijing — and spurns Taiwan.

We are in the midst of a deadly coronavirus pandemic that has put millions of lives at stake, and yet there is grave cause for concern over the independence of the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO). To be clear: There is no concern over the frontline health-care workers, scientists, and experts who do heroic work, often at great risk to themselves. They embody the WHO’s stated values of “put[ting] people’s health interests first.”

No, the concern stems from WHO’s current leadership, who have regularly demonstrated their servility to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The latest example comes in the form of a now-viral video interview, in which a WHO senior adviser abruptly ends the interview when asked about Taiwan. Dodging questions about Taiwan to please Beijing isn’t fatal, but it is indicative of a systemic problem within WHO leadership: a subservience to Beijing that comes at the expense of its stated commitment to public health.

Examples that could prove fatal are rife. In December, the WHO refused to act on or publicize Taiwan’s warning that the new respiratory infection emerging in China could pass from human to human. In mid January, despite accumulating evidence of patients contracting what we now know as COVID-19 from other people, the organization repeated the CCP’s lie that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. In January the WHO, at Beijing’s behest, also blocked Taiwan from participating in critical meetings to coordinate responses to the coronavirus and even reportedly provided wrong information about the virus’s spread in Taiwan. These actions are unacceptable and should not be allowed to continue.

The world’s leading global health organization cannot be used as a tool of the CCP, and the U.S. — the WHO’s largest financial contributor, giving five times as much money as obligated — must take steps to ensure it does. Once this pandemic is under control, WHO leadership should be held to account. That includes Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has allowed Beijing to use the WHO to mislead the global community. Today, WHO leadership continues to laud the CCP’s response even as more independent international observers raise questions over whether it is in fact under control in China. At this moment, Dr. Ghebreyesus is either complicit or dangerously incompetent. Neither possibility bodes well for his future at the helm of this critical organization.

I will also work with my colleagues in Congress to review U.S. contributions to the WHO. Most of our contributions can be used at the discretion of the WHO leadership. Maintaining current levels of U.S. contributions should depend on whether the WHO can reclaim its independence. First, we need investigations into the WHO’s unacceptably slow decision-making on whether to declare a global pandemic and into how China has compromised the integrity of the WHO. As well, we need accompanying reforms.

Every U.S. administration, Republican and Democratic alike, recognizes the critical value the WHO can play in protecting global health. If, after these steps, the organization demonstrates it is still not up to the task, then the U.S. must lead the world in exploring an alternative multilateral arrangement for global pandemic warning.

I am confident the world can work together to advance public health. Taiwan represents a model, which other nations should follow, for success outside Beijing-dominated organizations.

Despite the CCP’s suppression of information about COVID-19 and the WHO’s breach of public trust, the Taiwanese have seen low rates of infection, thanks in part to clever preventive strategies put in place after the 2002–3 SARS epidemic — another instance in which a virus from China affected Taiwan. This time, Taiwan implemented a raft of rapid emergency measures such as travel bans, quarantines, and strict social distancing.

When people’s lives were at stake, Taiwan acted to protect them. That is exactly what the WHO should be doing; instead, it has undermined global health by carrying water for Beijing. The global coronavirus pandemic is one of the greatest threats the world currently faces. If the WHO cannot return to its true mission, all responsible international actors should come together and consider what is needed to warn the world of emerging pandemics.

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