World Health Organization Under Fire After Its Defense of China Throughout Coronavirus Pandemic

BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 28: Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization, (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People, on January 28, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Naohiko Hatta - Pool/Getty Images)
Kyodo News via Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) is under fire from the United States president and lawmakers, after its unfailing defense of the Chinese Communist Party’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that may have slowed the global response and cost lives.

The WHO has backed China throughout the coronavirus pandemic, from promoting false Chinese statements to helping it deflect blame as the virus spread from Wuhan, China, to the rest of the world, infecting more than 1.6 million worldwide.

Earlier this week, President Trump announced he was considering withholding U.S. funding for WHO.

The U.S. is the top donor to  the WHO, giving the body more than $400 million in voluntary contributions in 2017, according to WHO funding documents. The second top donor was the United Kingdom at more than $163 million. China gave $10 million.

“The American people think that international organizations are inherently good. This is not about saying they’re bad,” said James Carafano, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies and Vice President of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.

“It’s about saying they’re being hijacked by the Chinese, and you need to wake up to that. It’s like the mafia taking over the police department. There’s nothing wrong with the police department, but if they’re on the mafia payroll it’s a problem,” he said.

Even before the pandemic, the WHO had attracted increased U.S. scrutiny for not allowing Taiwan, a U.S. ally, to participate in the body’s meetings at China’s request.

For example, the WHO has blocked Taiwan from attending its annual World Health Assembly since 2016, when pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen was elected. That is despite Taiwan being the 22nd largest economy in the world and a major travel hub in East Asia, with 17 airports connectied to more than 32 countries and more than 72 million passengers passing through its airports per year.

But China has pressured the WHO and other international bodies to exclude Taiwan, since it considers Taiwan a rogue province that is part of its territory and not a separate country.

Taiwanese officials say their exclusion from the WHO has put lives at risk in dealing with the coronavirus.

Taiwan’s vice president told the Financial Times that Taiwanese health authorities warned the WHO that the coronavirus could be transmitted from human-to-human in late December, but that the WHO ignored them and did not accept that finding until more than 20 days later.

“Criticism of WHO is absolutely warranted. There should be an investigation of China’s insinuation into the organization and whether that is the main reason the WHO for example failed to recognize human-to-human contamination until January 23,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a recent interview.

In mid-January, the WHO amplified a false claim from Chinese authorities that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission on its Twitter account:

It was not until January 22 that the WHO admitted there was evidence of “person-to-person transmission,” adding that it was not “unexpected”:

The WHO resisted calling the coronavirus a global health emergency until another week later, on January 30:

When President Trump ordered travel restrictions from China that same day, Tedros said, “We oppose it.” He added: “This is the time for facts, not fear; for science, not rumors. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he said on February 2. Travel restrictions were not needed to stop the outbreak and could “have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit,” he said.

Chinese officials used the WHO’s statements to criticize the restrictions. “All these measures are seriously against recommendation by the WHO,” said Li Song, China’s ambassador for disarmament at the United Nations.

“I think there are many legitimate questions on WHO, particularly in boxing Taiwan out that not just endangers the health of the people Taiwan, but really slowed the global response to that,” Carafano said.

Tedros has also complimented China profusely for its handling of the crisis, despite China initially hiding information and not notifying WHO of the coronavirus until December 31.

Doctors in China had seen evidence of the coronavirus by mid-December, if not earlier, according to a report by the South China Morning Post.

China did not share the genetic sequence for the coronavirus with WHO until January 11, which allowed other nations to start working on a vaccine.

But Tedros praised China on January 23, “Once again, I’d like to thank the Government of China for its cooperation & transparency.” He has also hailed China on its “speed” in detecting the outbreak as “very impressive, as well as its “commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries.”

After Trump — in addition to multiple mainstream media news outlets — called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” the WHO and Tedros urged people not to “attach locations or ethnicity to the disease.”

“This is not a … ‘Chinese Virus,'” the WHO tweeted, adding that the official name — COVID-19 — was ‘deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatization.”

“There’s something systemically wrong with the WHO’s decision-making processes, and how China factors into that, I don’t know, but it certainly appears that China has undue influence in the WHO,” Glaser said.

She said China’s influence on the WHO did not seem to be a function of its donation, since it is a “pittance” compared to what the U.S. gives.

“So money does not fully explain this, so there’s something else going on,” she said.

The Daily Mail recently took a deeper look at Tedros’ background, which revealed he began his government career in Ethiopia under a Marxist and then Communist regime, and that Chinese diplomats reportedly lobbied for him to get the position at the WHO.

According to the Sunday Times : “Chinese diplomats had campaigned hard for the Ethiopian, using Beijing’s financial clout and opaque aid budget to build support for him among developing countries.”

The Daily Mail report said United Nations records showed that under Tedros, Chinese contributions to the WHO as well as Ethiopia’s aid budget “substantially increased.” It also said when Tedros served as foreign minister of Ethiopia, he was hailed for procuring a funding boost from the UN and China, who had previously given little to the country.

A review of Tedros’ Twitter account shows praising China for its increased contribution to WHO and Chinese-Ethiopian deals as far back as 2014:

Experts say China’s growing influence within a host of international bodies needs more scrutiny.

“It reflects a bigger problem that we’ve been trying to bring attention to, which is the Chinese penetration of into a whole range of international organizations and really trying to shift those for Chinese benefit,” said Carafano.

China has also blocked the Taiwanese out of the International Civil Airline Organization (ICAO), Carafano said. “That creates a public safety challenge, because Taiwan has its own airline,” he said.

“If you look at UN-affiliated agencies, you will find that the presence of Chinese officials … throughout these organizations has had an impact on the way that they function,” Glaser said.

“We even saw in the case of just a few months ago, the World Bank had signed in 1999 an MOU with China that compelled all the people in Taiwan to change their passports to [People’s Republic of China] passports or be basically fired,” she said.

“When an organization like the World Bank is called out and that kind of information becomes public they are then compelled to change their practices so it is really important to uncover what is going on in these types of organizations,” she said.

The WHO has tried to avoid questions about its preferential treatment of China. In a recent interview with a Hong Kong-based outlet, a top WHO official pretended not to hear a question over whether Taiwan should be allowed into the WHO and then hung up on the journalist.

“I mean, this is just abominable behavior,” Glaser said.

There are now at least three bills in Congress and a growing number of U.S. lawmakers calling for the investigation of the WHO, suspension of U.S. funds to the organization, and for Tedros to retract his misleading statements.

Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow at Heritage said Trump is right to apply more pressure on the WHO for its response, but said instead of cutting all funding, should condition it on the completion of an investigation and steps to make it more responsive and accessible to Taiwan.

“The U.S. should demand that Taiwan be allowed to participate as an observer in WHO meetings and deliberations, as the Holy See and Palestine currently do,” he said.


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