The Corner


Sure, We Should Reform WHO, but the Chinese Regime Is the Real Problem

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)

Over in the United Kingdom, a government panel has determined “the worst ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic could have been avoided had the world not ‘lost’ a month at the start of the crisis to indecision and complacency.”

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR), led by two former heads of governments and a host of international experts including former UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband, says the international health system led by the World Health Organization (WHO) is “clearly unfit” to prevent another outbreak and calls for radical reform.

“Covid-19 is the 21st century’s Chernobyl moment,” says the report. “The system as it stands now is clearly unfit to prevent another novel and highly infectious pathogen, which could emerge at any time, from developing into a pandemic”.

The 86-page report, supported by a raft of supplementary annexes, describes the WHO as being “underpowered and underfunded”. It adds that it was hamstrung by conservative international regulations which prevented it from acting “immediately and independently” with respect to China and more quickly declaring an international health emergency.

Give the World Health Organization a healthy serving of blame and ridicule. The Biden administration rejoined the WHO, contending that U.S. membership will give us better leverage to force improvements within the organization, instead of leaving, as former president Donald Trump wished. It not quite clear how the U.S. will manage to force through changes for better performance and accountability in the organization. The WHO does love the Biden administration’s decision to waive the intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.

But as satisfying as it might be to knock around WHO like a piñata for failing in their primary duty, let’s keep in mind what the primary problem was at the start of this pandemic in Wuhan: The Chinese government kept lying to everyone — from their own people to the WHO to other governments and the international media. From the first cases in Wuhan hospitals until January 20, both the local and national Chinese government lied, and lied, and then lied some more, insisting that “The investigation so far has not found any obvious human-to-human transmission and no medical staff infection.” Medical personnel in hospitals suspected they had caught the virus from their patients in late December!

For the crucial opening weeks of this pandemic, the official stance of the Chinese government was:

  • The virus wasn’t contagious.
  • “The disease is preventable and controllable.”
  • Doctors who said the virus was a serious threat, like Dr. Li Wenliang, needed to be threatened by law enforcement for “spreading rumors.”
  • There was no reason to alter plans for mass gatherings in Wuhan at the Lunar New Year.
  • There was no reason to interrupt international travel into and out of Wuhan.

Direct flights from Wuhan to New York City continued until January 23! By that point, the rest of the world was doomed.

What you have is an authoritarian government that hates to acknowledge problems, prefers to hope they go away, reflexively lies even when the stakes are life-and-death, and has no regard for the lives of people inside or outside their borders. No WHO reform is going to fix that!

The British review includes all kinds of proposals that are fine on paper — peer review of countries’ pandemic plans, “national pandemic coordinators,” running simulations for practice, etc. But most of that is window dressing. The most important proposal is, “allow the WHO to send teams to investigate outbreaks and publish data without prior approval of the countries concerned. Make surveillance fully transparent.”

But that’s extremely unlikely to happen, unless Beijing gets boxed in by a furious international pressure campaign. China micromanaged every detail of the WHO team’s investigation in Wuhan in January 2021. The Chinese government refused to share some requested data. If another virus escapes from a bioweapons research lab — er, pardon me, I meant if another virus just naturally jumps from some bat that we never found — and sets off another pandemic in China, why would we expect the Chinese government to act any differently than they did last time?


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