World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Tuesday the newly discovered coronavirus ravaging China, or any viral outbreak, can have “more powerful consequences than any terrorist action” and encouraged global governments to “do whatever it can to stop it.”
The remarks follow a month of WHO officials initially refusing to declare the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), then discouraging nations from imposing travel bans on China, caving to pressure from the Communist Party. The Party considers travel bans an indication of a lack of trust in Beijing’s ability to contain the outbreak and, thus, an insult.
The WHO has also faced significant condemnation for excluding the nation of Taiwan from its international health response, despite Taipei’s proximity to China, the origin nation of the outbreak, and its advanced healthcare infrastructure. As a result, WHO officials have reported erroneous coronavirus patient tallies it received from Beijing, which has no ties to or authority over Taipei.
WHO chief Tedros insisted that global political leaders take the threat of the newly discovered coronavirus as seriously as a political threat.
“The world, when it talks about terrorism – and imagine the level of preparation and so on; it’s immense. To be honest, a virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack, believe it or not,” Tedros said during a press briefing Tuesday. “I was a foreign minister in one of my hats, discussing terrorism and so on but a virus can have more powerful consequences than any terrorist action and that’s true. If the world doesn’t want to wake up and consider this enemy virus as public enemy number one I don’t think we will learn our lessons.”
“I am reminding the world to use this opportunity to do whatever it can to contain this outbreak; do everything it can and there is time because, as I said, the number of cases in the rest of the world is less than 400 and there is only one death,” he continued. “That’s a window of opportunity so I’m reminding; there is time, the time is ticking and time is of the essence in this outbreak.”
Tedros thanked the Chinese Communist Party – which took 20 days to alert the public of the outbreak after identifying the source of the new virus and shutting it down – for allegedly creating a “window of opportunity” to contain the virus by placing its origin city, Wuhan, and much of the surrounding areas on lockdown and implementing extreme quarantine measures. China has reportedly bolted families in their homes, welded doors shut, and disappeared political prisoners as part of its outbreak response.
“You strike hard when the window of opportunity is there so that’s what we are saying to the rest of the world,” Tedros explained. “Let’s be serious in using the window of opportunity we have. We shouldn’t lose this opportunity. If we lose we will regret it and the opportunity was created because of the serious measures that China is taking in Wuhan and the other affected provinces.”
Many nations have already taken extensive measures to shut the coronavirus out of their territories, in particular limiting airplane travel from China or rejecting people with passports from Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, from entering. In the most extreme case, North Korea shut its border to foreigners entirely. The United States banned foreign citizens who had been to China in the past 14 days from entering, the typically agreed-upon incubation period for the virus.
These measures were taken against Tedros’ initial wishes. In January, the WHO director-general said the organization “opposes any restrictions for travel and trade” against China. The WHO as an organization has urged caution in limiting the mass transit of people worldwide.
“Evidence on travel measures that significantly interfere with international traffic for more than 24 hours shows that such measures may have a public health rationale at the beginning of the containment phase of an outbreak, as they may allow affected countries to implement sustained response measures, and non-affected countries to gain time to initiate and implement effective preparedness measures,” the WHO noted in its Tuesday report on the outbreak. “Such restrictions, however, need to be short in duration, proportionate to the public health risks, and be reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves.”
Communist Party officials have pounced on these remarks to scold countries that protect their citizens through restricted travel measures, branding them racists.
“Despite the World Health Organization’s recommendation against limiting trade and travel, some governments have banned Chinese nationals from entering their borders,” the Chinese state propaganda newspaper Global Times reported last week. “It is crucial that China is aware of the importance of protecting its national interests and citizens overseas and takes concrete steps to respond by rewarding good deeds and punishing ill-intentioned actions.”
The Global Times specifically identified American travel limitations as an “overreaction” shortly after they were implemented in January.