Contaminating the WHO

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Contaminating the WHO


Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said one government’s firm measures effectively controlled the coronavirus epidemic and set a great encouragement and example for other countries. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson congratulated the leader of that government and said Britain was analyzing helpful tips from that country.

The person who received those two lavishings of praise in two phone calls was Chinese President Xi Jinping. French president Emmanuel Macron has said pretty much the same thing. Can these words of praise be trusted? Are European leaders turning a blind eye to China’s responsibility for spreading the virus around the world by covering up initial news of the outbreak, refusing to publicize the seriousness of the situation, and allowing millions of tourists to go abroad during the Lunar New Year holiday? I suppose so, but for a reason. As China went through the epidemic first and had a great many clinical experiences, they need its information to help deal with the outbreaks in their own countries. They may have fudged the uncomfortable truths and chosen to be diplomatic.

I think the praise that the same people send to President Moon Jae-in is in the same vein. The praise for the swift testing and mature citizenship of Koreans who don’t panic buy is probably sincere. However, just as their praises ignore China’s responsibility for the virus’s start, the Korean government’s lax early response and mishandling of mask supplies cannot be erased. The whole country is still struggling to resolve something that could have been resolved in the initial stages.

Even if Covid-19 was a “black swan” event that could not be predicted, its global spread could have been prevented. The cause was inattention. For a while, Western people believed that only Asians would contract the coronavirus. U.S. President Donald Trump compared the coronavirus to a cold that would go away when the weather warmed up.

I am dumbfounded that even the World Health Organization (WHO) encouraged such inattention. Rather than issuing a preemptive warning, it was late to declare an emergency or call the outbreak a pandemic. Even CNN started using the term pandemic before the WHO. When the number of patients exploded in China, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that China should receive thanks for controlling it and repeatedly said that travel restrictions were not recommended. The Moon administration dismissed the advice of the Korea Medical Association and the Korea Society of Infectious Diseases, based on the WHO’s recommendation. Now, no country follows that recommendation.

Why did the WHO secretary general flub it? I cannot explain it except for China’s influence. Ghebreyesus served as health minister and foreign minister of Ethiopia. His tenure as foreign minister from 2012 to 2016 coincided with major Chinese investment in Ethiopia. Ethiopia gets the third largest amount of investment from China in Africa. His predecessor Margaret Chan, who comes from Hong Kong, became secretary general of the international body with the support of China.

In January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Switzerland to attend the Davos Forum. I was a Beijing correspondent at the time and still remember his unusual visit to the WHO headquarters in Geneva despite a tight schedule. It was the first time a Chinese president visited the WHO. While the story behind the visit is not known, it is obvious that China is putting lots of efforts into the WHO. Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan has been serving as a goodwill ambassador for H.I.V./AIDS for more than five years. This fact may be minor compared to the reality that four out of 15 United Nations agencies are headed by Chinese. It means that China is determined to expand its influence on the international stage.

The biggest victim of China’s sway over the WHO is Taiwan. Taiwan had maintained its observer status in the WHO, but was ousted in 2016. It is an open secret that China’s pressure to isolate Taiwan’s diplomatically was behind the ousting.

After the humiliation by the WHO, Taiwan is getting a measure of comeuppance by controlling the Covid-19 outbreak — and ignoring WHO recommendations. Countries that believed and followed the WHO recommendations are suffering. Taiwan and Singapore have become models of disease control and proof positive that the WHO doesn’t know what it’s talking about. When disease control is tainted by politics, lives will be lost. That truth can be learned from the recommendations of the WHO. The desire of China to dominate any levers of power in the international community is the biggest threat to our health and safety. That’s how the world works today.
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