Caught between superpowers - story of WHO's response to Covid-19

When a pandemic strikes, the world’s leading experts convene – physically or virtually – in a hi-tech chamber in the basement of the Geneva headquarters of the World Health Organization. It is called the “strategic health operations centre”, or SHOC, an appropriately urgent acronym for a place where life and death decisions are taken, and it is where critical choices were made in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. The WHO had been sharing information with member states constantly since the first cluster of pneumonia cases was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of December, but declaring a PHEIC still had huge symbolic importance. If human-to-human transmission was only happening in close quarters, in families, or between patients and health workers, then perhaps it could be largely contained without a worldwide alert, and all the global economic disruption that entailed. But he feels that politically he needs to get a unanimous decision before he acts or at least an overwhelming majority,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of public health law at Georgetown University, said. But by seeking to make the global body the scapegoat for the debacle of the US response, Donald Trump has ensured each detail will become exhibits in a highly-politicised show-trial, likely to last as long as the election campaign. Furthermore, the president has used claims of WHO’s dysfunction to justify cutting off US funding to it, worth over m a year, and hindering the organisation’s ability to help counter the spread of the pandemic in fragile and poor countries around the world. The other emergency members and advisers came were experts from the US, Thailand, Russia, France, South Korea, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Australia, Senegal, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and New Zealand. “Why did the WHO Ignore an email from Taiwanese health officials in late December alerting them to the possibility that coronvirus could be transmitted between humans?” the president asked in a tweet on Friday, echoing a claim made by Taipei. It was sent from Taiwan’s CDC to its WHO liaison officer on 31 December, hours after the first official report of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan were published online. On 1 January it activated its incident management support team, putting the organisation on an emergency footing. Since the UN voted to recognise the People’s Republic as the sole representative of China in 1971 and the World Health Assembly followed suit in 1972, Taiwan has not had full member status in the WHO, but it is involved in the organisation’swork. It is one of 15 non-state entities that have access to expert deliberations through an information network established by the International Health Regulations (IHR), a pact on collective action against infectious disease with roots stretching back to the nineteenth century. The director general’s defenders say such diplomatic flattery is the price of ensuring Chinese cooperation with information and WHO sitevisits. The WHO also provided ammunition to its detractors when, on 14 January, it put out a tweet citing preliminary Chinese studies finding “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”. It was issued on the same day the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove (a US immunologist) gave a press briefing in Geneva warning of precisely the opposite – the potential for rapid spread. Again and again, the events of January reflected the difficulties Tedros and his organisation faced in negotiating a path between two hostile superpowers, and the egos of their leaders, without any independent powers to enforce compliance and information sharing.