The WHO reputation may take years to rebuild, but in view of its vital health and sanitary importance to the world, a full independent post-pandemic inquiry should be on the cards
By S. Callikan
President Donald Trump has edged rapidly away from his (and WHO’s) initial stance throughout most of January and February, lauding the Chinese government for its early handling of the epidemic storm of unprecedented scale that was building up. Despite his new high-profile announcement of US intelligence investigations on the origins of the Covid-19 and China’s role in minimizing its importance, we can safely bet that controversies will rage about the actions of all three, but that concretely neither the world, nor us at our island-nation level, may see much light in the setting of high-stakes geopolitical affairs, news channels, social networks, fake news, conspiracy theories and other spin-doctoring already being rolled out across continents.
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China’s early self-congratulatory kudos on its improved prospects as the world’s future manufacturer as a result of this pandemic, has rapidly shifted to more empathy and PR considerations. It is understandably busy now using its financial clout and the marshalled abilities of its industries or its billionaires to offer protective gear (PPEs), testing equipment, ventilators and strategic supply packages to various destinations, including such hard-hit countries like Italy in Europe, the African continent or OBOR-friendly countries (One Belt, One Road staple acronym for China’s geopolitics). China has evidently to try and restore international goodwill, even while cuddling favoured players, but no one can predict how Italian public opinion or, for that matter, public opinion in many countries badly hit both by the terrible death tolls and the succeeding debacle of their economy, will digest the post-pandemic shocks. Such geopolitical matters will take their course but one can acknowledge that China, as a world superpower, remains one of our traditional allies and a friendly nation.
Astute and even right-wing US intelligentsia may rue President Trump’s vacillating foreign policy stances and strategies on Putin, North Korea, China, Iran and the Middle East or the dismay he has caused to the NATO council. They may ponder the consequences of US retreat from multilateral agencies (like FAO, UNESCO or WHO), leaving geopolitical space filled up by its only international competitor, China. They may chaff at his obsession with dismantling Obama legacies (Obamacare or, tragically the special Pandemic Unit created following previous world health epidemics), his minimalist understanding of basic sciences (as illustrated both by his dismissal of the Paris Environment accord or, more recently, his dabbling with UV, heat or disinfectant recommendations to his top CDC medical staff). They probably recognize that response delays to the pandemic, incompetency, focus on spin-doctoring and futile fights with reporters or State governors will cost far more US lives than necessary. They may even have lost the forlorn hope that there’s an adult in the room, somewhere. But Trump’s fierce rhetoric and finely honed political flair means that what promises to be a hard-hitting campaign to the November 2020 elections may not yet be a fait accompli.
What perhaps could and should worry us more on another geopolitical front are the controversies surrounding the role of WHO, its director-general (who is not a medical practitioner or specialist) and his top echelon team throughout the corona crisis. We will not go into these controversies here as volumes can and will be written about them by far more informed health specialists, epidemiologists, media and those with intelligence information about WHO’s inside operations and management structures. As the pandemic has brutally revealed failings of national health systems even in major league countries, scores of smaller and less well-endowed countries around the world naturally have come to depend on the Geneva institution for the best sanitary, health, treatment or epidemic advice and advance warning systems.
They probably employ many hundreds of first-class medical, sanitary, epidemiological specialists, statisticians and analysts and have established a network of representatives around the globe as local conduits for sharing and disseminating expert advice and knowledge on such matters. What would be deeply troubling, were that to be the case, is for the best technical and medical advice to be eroded as they make their way up the hierarchy to WHO top spheres where other considerations have been allegedly polluting the narrative. The “China-centric” accusation has been levelled by President Trump recently while some countries are miffed by the exclusion of Taiwan, or the participation of WHO in the Chinese diplomatic OBOR initiative. The failure to demand any, let alone, immediate access by specialists to the secret level-4 virology research laboratories at Wuhan, the PR exercises by the director-general and a few colleagues late in the day with President Xi, are cited as more examples of political game-playing at high WHO headquarters that may have had terrible consequences.
Whatever the merit of such accusations, most nations require an institution that operates without fear or favour either from powerful political patrons or from very powerful Big Pharma lobbies. It is worth reminding readers that, according to Biospace estimates, the combined market capitalization of the top twenty pharmaceutical giants (all European and US-based by the way) stood at a staggering 2.63 trillion US$ in 2019 before the pandemic wreaked havoc on stock markets.
“It is the “wet markets”, an economic activity worth billions and a traditional pillar of rural China, that have been repeatedly in the dock, a state of affairs that may require their national authorities to give far more attention to the problem. Epidemics in one form or another may stay to haunt us every so often and if only for that reason the WHO should have fail-proof structures and functioning. The WHO reputation may take years to rebuild, but in view of its vital health and sanitary importance to the world, a full independent post-pandemic inquiry should be on the cards…”
Epidemiological experts and medical specialists may have their own views on highly contagious bouts of disastrous epidemics that have rocked humanity in localized areas over time. With internet and the lockdown, many of us are now even familiar with the plagues and Black deaths in Antiquity to London, to those that rocked Marseille, Russia and the USA, to the polio and yellow fever epidemics or the Spanish flu in early twentieth century. But we have to recognize that the global village has made potentially ravaging infectious diseases more frequent and more disruptive: HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, mexican swine flu, Latin America’s zika or Chikungunya are only a few in the recent fifty years or so. They may all have sprouted from animal origins and, through an intermediate vector or not, jumped aboard the human bandwagon so to speak from vastly different regions.
Yet, it is the “wet markets”, an economic activity worth billions and a traditional pillar of rural China, that have been repeatedly in the dock, a state of affairs that may require their national authorities to give far more attention to the problem. Epidemics in one form or another may stay to haunt us every so often and if only for that reason the WHO should have fail-proof structures and functioning. The WHO reputation may take years to rebuild, but in view of its vital health and sanitary importance to the world, a full independent post-pandemic inquiry of any failings and urgent consequential restructuring to avoid any such recurrence in the future should be on the cards.
* Published in print edition on 28 April 2020