Since its inception 72 years ago almost to the day, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been credited with the eradication of smallpox and the near eradication of other devastating illnesses, including leprosy and river blindness.
This record of success makes the current corruption of the organization all the more shameful.
On December 30, Chinese doctor Li Wenliang warned colleagues about the outbreak of an illness resembling severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which sparked a pandemic in 2003. Public-health officials rely on the acuity of doctors like Li, whose early warnings prevent the spread of deadly diseases. But Chinese authorities didn’t reward Li; they summoned him to the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan on accusations that he had made false statements and disrupted the public order.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) followed up with numerous other arrests, and publicly warned that it would punish anyone spreading “rumors” on social media. By mid January, Chinese doctors knew that COVID-19 was spreading between humans, but on January 14, the WHO stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus.” Two weeks later, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus flew to Beijing for a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, who so impressed Tedros that he lauded Chinese authorities for “setting a new standard for outbreak control,” praising their “openness for sharing information.”
Dr. Li might have disagreed with that sentiment. Alas, he was never able to voice his objections: He died after contracting COVID-19.
When the WHO emergency committee discussed whether to declare COVID-19 a public-health emergency on January 23, international observers had definitively discredited Chinese health data. Yet Tedros relied on those data in arguing against declaring an emergency — over the objections of other committee members. That decision delayed the mobilization of public-health resources around the world. John Mackenzie, a committee member, attributed the delay to “very poor reporting” and “very poor communication” from the CCP. After finally declaring an emergency on January 30, Tedros continued to lavish praise on China. As late as February 20, he argued that Chinese actions were “slowing the spread [of coronavirus] to the rest of the world.”
Tedros isn’t afraid to take on world leaders as a general matter. When President Trump limited travel from China to the U.S. on January 31 — a decision that bought the U.S. precious time — Tedros said it would “have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit.”
The record is clear: The WHO has lent its imprimatur to Chinese disinformation and blessed China’s slow response to its domestic outbreak, which likely caused a 20-fold increase in cases, according to a University of Southampton study.
The Chinese government must believe they have invested very wisely. They backed Tedros’s bid to run the WHO in 2017, seeking to plant an ally in the U.N. leadership. Who was better suited for the role than a leftist political operative with a history of covering up health emergencies? As one of his first actions at the helm, Tedros assured the Chinese that he would adhere to the “One China” policy, barring Taiwanese participation. The Trump administration opposed Tedros’s campaign to lead the organization but couldn’t surmount China’s sway.
China’s influence over the WHO comes at a bargain price: Beijing only contributes half as much as the U.S. does to the WHO’s budget.
Congress should investigate Chinese influence on the WHO, and the U.S. should use its ample funding of the organization as leverage to demand transparency about its dealings with China. Our continued participation in the WHO should be in play. In its moment of testing, the organization kowtowed to Beijing rather than serve the public interest, and the world paid the price.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article said the World Health Organization was founded 112 years ago. In fact, it was founded 72 years ago.