It is very difficult to understand the chaos unleashed by CoViD-19 without recalling how the SARS epidemic of 2002-03 had let loose fear, concern and death in a similar manner. Then, like now, China was slow to acknowledge the epidemic domestically and failed to inform the global community about its possible spread. But there is one crucial difference: The reaction of the World Health Organization. During the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, WHO was quick to recommend travel restrictions and criticize china for delaying the submission of vital information that would have limited the global spread of SARS.
WAS IT ALREADY EXPECTING?
As China was celebrating the successful eradication of SARS, WHO warned the world about other novel forms of the coronavirus. The then Director-General of WHO, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, requested the international community to investigate possible animal reservoirs that could be a source for future outbreaks and better study the movement of
the virus to humans. The wildlife markets of China were specifically identified as a likely environment for the virus to incubate,
mutate and then jump from animals to humans.
The mutable nature of the virus, coupled with China’s rapid urbanization, proximity to exotic animals and refusal to tackle illegal wildlife trade and commerce were together termed as ‘time bomb’ by a research paper in 2007. Even in December 2015, the coronavirus family of diseases were included in a list of priorities requiring urgent research and development. It was earmarked as a primary contender for emerging diseases likely to cause a major epidemic – an assessment that was reiterated in WHO’s 2018 annual review.
It is surprising, then, that when a pneumonia-like virus was detected in Wuhan in December 2019, the WHO, armed with data and years of subsequent research about the SARS outbreak, reacted as slowly as it possibly can. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the DG of WHO, applauded China’s “commitment to transparency” in the early days of the epidemic in January, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The WHO then denied evidence of human to human transmission of the novel coronavirus, barely a day after the first case was announced outside China. This despite the fact that Taiwan, had warned the body of this as early as December.
WILL EARLY MISTAKES COST US?
While Beijing informed the WHO on December 31, there are expert estimates that the virus had spread to humans back in October. Even after being told, the WHO showed no urgency to send an investigative team, probably to not displease the Chinese government. A joint WHO-Chinese team went to Wuhan only in mid-February and wrote a report with decidedly Chinese characteristics. Meanwhile, Covid-19 continued to exhibit characteristics of a pandemic, spreading rapidly around the world. Not only did Dr Tedros and his team fail to declare a public health emergency, they urged member nations to not spread fear by imposing travel restrictions. It even criticized early travel restrictions by the US as being excessive and unnecessary. Following the WHO’s advice, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) suggested that the probability of virus infecting the EU was low, which resulted in a delay in more robust border controls by European nations.
These early mis-steps by the global health body turned out to be fatal to thousands around the world and is adversely affecting the lives of millions who are now facing a prolonged tragedy and an economic slowdown.
ORGANIZATIONAL CHALLENGE OR GEOPOLITICS AT PLAY?
Part of the problem can be traced back to the WHO’s long-simmering organizational challenges. It was chronically underfunded and has come under repeated scrutiny for its unwieldy bureaucracy and opaque regional offices. Indeed, the WHO’s response to Ebola was similarly criticized by the international community. But that is not the only problem. It is equally clear that shaping the international health response to the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus is one more front in the shifting sands of global power. This is not a first time int the WHO’s history. In the 1950s and ’60s, the WHO found itself oscillating between the Soviet-led Communist bloc and the US. Later, through the 1990s and early-2000s, the WHO was embroiled in a ‘North-South’ debate over pharmaceuticals, intellectual property rights and access to medicine.
China’s growing clout in international organizations is creating new fault lines in global politics, and the WHO has been an early victim. WHO,in 2017, then led by Margret Chan, was one of the first international institutions to have signed an MoU with China to advance health priorities under the contested Belt and Road Initiative. Chan, a Chinese-Canadian, has strong links to the Mainland. Her successor, the Ethiopian politician Tedros, was also seen as a Chinese-backed candidate. Taking a peek into the relations between Dr. Tedros’s homeland and China will help us understand this view better.
The policymakers in Ethiopia have understood that economic growth cannot be achieved without technological and industrial upgrading and structural transformation of the country’s economic activities. China has come to their rescue, being a continuous source of economic assistance and investments as well as inexpensive technologies. Besides, Ethiopia considers China a vast market for its agricultural commodities and thus a way for improving the lives of the nation’s peasantry, which make up about 80 percent of the population. Hence, it regards China as a close partner that is directly involved in building its infrastructure and engaged in its development.
The convergence of interests between the two countries has resulted in optimism among Ethiopia’s ruling elite and raised expectations among ordinary Ethiopians. Hence, it cannot afford to upset China, not even remotely.
CHINA IS CHANGING THE EQUATIONS
So, what happened in the past with the WHO in similar situations in 2000 when three SARS outbreaks took place. When the SARS outbreak took place, the WHO chief was Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland. She had been three times the prime minister of Norway, again a solid person. She stood up to China. In fact, she was very critical of China. She called out China for not acting fast enough and under her, the WHO called out China for viruses emerging from wild animal trade. China then fired its health minister and the Beijing mayor.
The power equation in the world has changed today. China has risen and agencies do not want to upset it today. The WHO has only praised China until now. Tedros traveled to China and found nothing wrong. On 14 January, the WHO said there is no human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. A Chinese epidemiologist, Zhung Nanshan, had on 20 January, said that human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus is possible. After this, Tedros went to China, met Xi Jinping, and again made his statement praising the Chinese that they had been remarkably fast in catching the virus. We have previously seen, why Dr. Tedros “had to” act the way he did.
Although Italy was the first G-7 nation to sign the BRI, the Chinese flagship infrastructure project, the Chinese did not even consider giving proper data to the Italian govt., even as the country became the epicenter to the outbreak and was witnessing hundreds of deaths each day. The “aid” it is now offering to this already devastated nation is nothing but a PR stunt. This instance should be a wake-up call to all the nations who are putting their sovereignty on the line, just for some temporary economic benefits-which are nothing but tools in the Chinese debt-trap diplomacy.
The WHO’s open deference to China’s national interests, despite its reckless behavior should be an immediate warning sign to all functional democracies around the world. Over the past decade, Beijing has steadily filled in the vacuum in international institutions resulting from the Western democracies, especially the US. India has lost battles to China as well – most recently withdrawing its nominee for the Food and Agricultural Organization facing inevitable defeat at the hands of China’s candidate. It is an irony of our times that the world’s most potent authoritarian state heads over a quarter of all specialized agencies in the UN, ostensibly the centerpiece of the international liberal order.
Of late, the world has begun to hit back. The recent victory of the Singaporean candidate in elections to the director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization was a setback to the Chinese attempts to capture a prized regulatory and norm-setting institution. Will the WHO be the next battleground? To prevent future outbreaks, it must.