Amidst the chaos, sorrow and outrage caused by the global Coronavirus Pandemic, people have started questioning some of the actions taken by the World Health Organisation as well as China’s notorious tendency to play things close to the chest. Looking back at the barrage of news reports through the lens of hindsight, could the WHO have done things differently? Had China been more forthcoming, could the magnitude of the tragedy have been smaller? Complete Coronavirus Coverage
Crux of the Matter
The Ongoing Pandemic It started off as a mysterious pneumonia like affliction in a central province of China called Hubei in December 2019. Three months on, it has engulfed the world in a pandemic of proportions not seen for a century. The novel Coronavirus disease has affected almost a million people worldwide and dealt painful choking death to more than 40 thousand people. As of 1st April, India has seen more than 1700 cases and 50+ deaths because of COVID-19.
China, where the virus first reared its ugly head, has seen close to 80,000 cases with 3,000 fatalities. These numbers have been stable since the past month, whereas the numbers have shot up in USA and Europe. The past week saw the cases in USA climb steeply to almost 200 thousand with 4000+ deaths. Italy and Spain have seen 12000+ and 9000+ deaths respectively. Worldwide, countries have had to resort to strict country-wide lockdowns to try to stem the spread of the contagion. The global economy has come to a grinding halt and the world has entered a recession.
Could WHO Have Done More? December 2019 saw the emergence of this virus in Wuhan in Hubei province of China. Doctors and researchers saw similarities with SARS. As it turned out, it was a new strain of the SARS causing coronavirus. Initially China, allegedly, tried to suppress the spread of information even as the Chinese government tried to come to grips with the entire situation. On 31st December, the Chinese authorities finally informed the WHO about the outbreak of the disease. At this time there were around 30 cases in China.
Early January saw the cases double every week. Wuhan is a central transport hub in China. This coupled with the upcoming Chinese New year related travels, saw the virus spread to other parts of China including Beijing and Shenzhen. On 10th January, WHO put out a general travel advisory for travelers in Wuhan. In hindsight, data shows that there may have been more than 6,000 patients impacted by 20th January.
Around this time, on 14th January, the WHO made a statement that there was “no clear case of human to human transmission” based on preliminary research by Chinese authorities. Notably, Taiwanese authorities had been warning of possible human to human transmission since 1st January.
13th January saw the first case outside China, in Thailand. On 20th January China confirmed human to human transmission had already happened.
On 24th January, WHO recommended entry and exit screenings at airports while advising against blanket travel restrictions. In 3 days it revised its stance and judged the potential global risk to be high and in another 3 days, on 30th January, declared it a a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC). By then the world had already seen 10,000 cases.
A week earlier, on 23rd January, a WHO committee was divided on whether to declare a PHEIC, with chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus taking a call to wait and watch – at that time the confirmed cases were around 1000.
On 2nd February, when the cases had doubled to 20,000, WHO chief Dr Adhanomurged countries not to close borders with China.
By 15th February there were already cases in Europe including in Italy, France and Spain – the global count had reached 70,000, mostly in China. On 24th February, when the global case count crossed 80,000 with more than 2500 fatalities, Dr Adhanom warned of a possibility of a global pandemic and WHO raised the global risk assessment to “very high” on 27th February.
The outbreak was declared a global pandemic on 11th March. By then the global cases had crossed 125,000. There were close to 5000 confirmed deaths, 3000 of which were from China. Two days later, and almost 3 months after the outbreak began, Europe was deemed the new epicentre. Within the next 3 weeks the case count would cross 900,000, the death toll would cross 40,000.
WHO Chief’s Chinese Connections? The coronavirus global crisis has brought the WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom into the global spotlight – not all of it is flattering. Dr Tedros of Ethiopia, happens to be the first non-medical Director-General of WHO – the Dr signifies his PhD.
He has previously been accused of covering up multiple cholera epidemics as health minister of Ethiopia. Reports suggest, Chinese diplomats had used influence and money to campaign for and beget Dr Tedros the post of Director-General of WHO. He had beaten UK’s Dr David Nabarro to the race. China had reportedly influenced a lot of developing countries’ representatives to vote for Dr Tedros. China has over the years been building a growing industrial presence in Africa and has been flexing its geopolitical muscle at the global scale in UN and its subsidiary bodies.
During the on-going pandemic, Dr Tedros has come out openly in praise of Beijing’s measures, actions and openness to share information even as the western world has accused China of silencing whistleblowers and critics. Other members of the WHO emergency committee have criticised China for obfuscation and delayed reporting of data. He has also seemingly delayed travel restrictions to China and defended China against accusations of opaqueness.
An online petition demanding his resignation has been supported by more than 600,000 people.
WHO Handled SARS-1 In 2003, a SARS outbreak had happened in China. This was caused by a previous version of the coronavirus. Back then, WHO chief Dr Brundtland was quick to put out travel restrictions on China. He had also been a sharp critic of China’s policy of trying to cover up the outbreak through media manipulation, news censoring and arresting whistleblowers. Back then China had delayed a WHO team from traveling to the epicentre in Guangdong province. The outbreak was effectively contained in a 6 month span, with death count of less than 1000.
WHO – The World Health Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. It is part of the U.N. Sustainable Development Group. The WHO Constitution, which establishes the agency’s governing structure and principles, states its main objective as ensuring “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.” It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with six semi-autonomous regional offices and 150 field offices worldwide. More Info
SARS Outbreak – The 2002–2004 SARS outbreak was an epidemic involving severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) caused by SARS-CoV. Prior to the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic, the outbreak was first identified in Foshan, Guangdong, China in November 2002. Over 8,000 people from 29 different countries and territories were infected, and at least 774 died worldwide. The World Health Organization declared severe acute respiratory syndrome contained on 5 July 2003, however several SARS cases were reported until May 2004. More Info
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is an Ethiopian politician and academic who has been Director-General of the World Health Organization since 2017. He previously served in the Government of Ethiopia as Minister of Health from 2005 to 2012 and as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2012 to 2016. More Info