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Why Modi, Trump & others are angry at WHO’s handling of Covid-19 crisis

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New Delhi: The World Health Organisation (WHO), the agency that handles health within the United Nations, is facing a lot of global criticism, and even in India, over how it has handled this Covid-19 crisis. It does seem that it took too long in reacting to the pandemic and gave China a long pass.

It was in denial for a long time that the coronavirus was a pandemic and in fact, it took too long even accepting that human-to-human transmission of this virus was possible. It had been giving glowing certificates of good conduct to China until the end of January. The WHO was criticising countries including the US for imposing travel bans on China.

At the G20 Virtual Summit Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a very diplomatic way, questioned the WHO. In fact, he suggested that the WHO now needs recasting. He said that it does look like the WHO does not have the kind of power that is needed to manage Covid-19 kind of global pandemics. He also wanted the WHO to be empowered to issue early warnings and also for capacity building and for working towards vaccines. He also said it was caught up in the last century.

WHO balancing between powers

The previous century was very different because it was the century of the Cold War following the World War when the UN was formed. The WHO was caught balancing between the US and Russia. The world became unipolar after the Cold War ended. Now the unipolar has become a bipolar world, with the rise of China. One of the poles, which was the main pole or the pivot on which the world stood after the Cold War, has now been shrinking. That is Trump’s America or America under Trump.

While Modi has been diplomatic in his criticism of the WHO, others have not.

Trump himself has said that WHO has become one-sided and sides with China, and that it is unfair.  Marco Rubio, who was the former candidate for the Republican party nomination, said there were several red flags in WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ relationship with China.

Another senior Republican senator Michael McCaul, who’s a ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, dittoed that allegation. Then Congressman Greg Steube, also of the Republican Party, said that under Tedros, the WHO has become a mouthpiece of China.

Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican, said the same thing. Now arguably, these are all Republican Party senators and congressmen, but they are all attacking Tedros and the WHO so strongly on the same issue. That the WHO has been weak and incompetent inefficient in dealing with this crisis, that it has led down the failed the world also, and it’s been too weak in dealing with China.

Lawrence O. Gostin, a prominent global health expert who is also an informal adviser to Dr David Nabarro, a rival candidate in the race for WHO director general, accused Tedros of covering up to three cholera epidemics in his home country, Ethiopia, when he was the health minister. Gostin called attention to Ethiopia’s long history of denying cholera outbreaks even as aid agencies scrambled to contain them. “Dr Tedros is a compassionate and highly competent public health official,” Gostin said. “But he had a duty to speak truth to power and to honestly identify and report verified cholera outbreaks over an extended period.”


Rise of China

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. Now, 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 travelled 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. Tedros after that went to China. In China, he met Xi Jinping, and again made his statement praising the Chinese that they had been remarkably fast in catching the virus.


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