The COVID-19 crisis is the greatest disaster and blunder the world has seen since World War II. It is therefore high time for China and the World Health Organization to fess up, to be transparent and to ensure that it does not happen again. The Australian government’s proposal for an independent international enquiry on the origin and handling of the COVID-19 crisis, including the role of the WHO, is a much-needed initiative.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the bankruptcy of China’s authoritarian governance, which not only greatly facilitates cover-ups and fake narratives, but in that process evidently puts the health of the world’s population at risk.
China’s management of COVID-19 started with a domestic coverup and manipulation of the WHO. For example, China refused the visit of WHO experts until WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with President Xi Jinping at the end of January, even though the virus was already out of control. China then progressed very quickly to bumbling attempts at touting the superiority of its authoritarian system.
Some of those attempts at soft power have flopped as China has sold masks and COVID-19 test kits of poor quality, reinforcing an old stereotype China has labored hard to shed.
Few advanced countries have fallen for Chinese soft power diplomacy. U.S. President Donald Trump has said that China should be punished if it was “knowingly responsible” for the COVID-19 crisis.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said China will have to answer hard questions on how the outbreak happened and on whether it could have been prevented.
French President Emmanuel Macron told the Financial Times it would be “naive” to think China had handled the pandemic well, adding: “There are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.”
The WHO has not crowned itself in glory either. The COVID-19 episode stands in sharp contrast to the WHO’s good work on other pandemics like Ebola, and also in the Pacific. Of course, like all international organizations, the WHO is vulnerable to pressure from members. But to preserve its credibility, any international organization must stand up unfailingly to protect its core mandate. Its credibility rests upon it. In this case, the WHO has been unacceptably subservient to China. In January and most of February, the WHO wasted precious time as it parroted lines from Beijing. Indeed, the Australian government felt so moved that on Feb. 1 it defied WHO advice as it implemented a ban on travelers from China.
Two days later, Tedros hit out at Australia for the travel restrictions it had issued. That is not the action of a top manager of global health. That is clearly a case of doing a specific nation’s business. Health managers have a clear responsibility to act upon the precautionary principle.
Perhaps the most egregious of the WHO’s anomalies is the exclusion, because of Chinese pressure, of Taiwan from the WHO. Taiwan has been one of the world’s most successful countries in managing the COVID-19 crisis; its exclusion is unacceptable.
U.S. President Donald Trump provoked a storm of criticism when he recently announced that U.S. funding for the WHO would be put on hold for 60 to 90 days, pending a review of the WHO’s warnings about the coronavirus and China. While Trump has every reason to question the WHO, the reality is that it is a very necessary international organization. It has done much good work in the past. If anything, looking ahead its role needs to be strengthened. If the U.S. were to withdraw from the WHO, that would make the current WHO governance problem only that much worse. It would leave a big gap which China could fill. That would provide it with yet more space to make the management of global health subject to the ideological whims of the Chinese Communist Party.
That is why the suggestion by the Australian government for an independent international enquiry on the origin and handling of the COVID-19 crisis, including the role of the WHO, is clearly the best way forward. In the meantime, the WHO director-general would do the organization a favor by resigning and allowing a more credible figure to take over.
John West is executive director of the Asian Century Institute. www.theglobalist.com
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