Comparisons, as the proverb goes, are odious. Hence comparing the raging outbreak of Covid19 with any other pandemic of recent times is best avoided. Yet, it is difficult to track the pandemonium unleashed by Covid19 without recalling how the SARS epidemic of 2002-03 had let loose fear, concern and death in a similar manner. Then, like now, China was slow to acknowledge the epidemic domestically and failed to inform the global community about its possible spread.
There was one crucial difference however: the reaction of the World Health Organization. During the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, WHO was quick to recommend travel restrictions and criticise China for delaying the submission of vital information that would have limited the global spread of SARS.
Even as it was celebrating the successful eradication of SARS after a fierce eight-month battle, WHO warned that the world would not remain free from other novel forms of the coronavirus. The then Director-General of WHO, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, implored the international community to investigate possible animal reservoirs that could be a source for future outbreaks and better study the movement of the virus to humans. China’s wet markets were specifically identified as a likely environment for the virus to incubate and jump from animals to humans.
The mutable nature of the virus, coupled with China’s rapid urbanisation, proximity to exotic animals and refusal to tackle illegal wildlife trade and commerce were together termed a ‘time bomb’ by a research paper in 2007. As late as December 2015, the coronavirus family of diseases was selected to be included in a list of priorities requiring urgent research and development. It was earmarked as a primary contender for emerging diseases likely to cause a major epidemic—an assessment which was reiterated in WHO’s 2018 annual review of prioritised diseases.
It is surprising, then, that when a pneumonia-like virus was detected in Wuhan in late-December 2019, the WHO, armed with data and years of subsequent research about the SARS outbreak, reacted as sluggishly as it did. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, better known as Dr Tedros, the DG of WHO, applauded China’s “commitment to transparency” in the early days of the epidemic in January, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The WHO then denied evidence of human to human transmission of the novel coronavirus, barely a day after the first case was announced outside China. This is despite the fact that Taiwan, whose exclusion from the WHO deserves an article in itself, had warned the body of this as early as December.
While Beijing informed the WHO on December 31, there are expert estimates that the virus had spread to humans as far back as October. Even after being told, the WHO showed no urgency to send an investigative team, careful not to displease the Chinese government. A joint WHO-Chinese team went to Wuhan only in mid-February and wrote a report with decidedly Chinese characteristics.
Meanwhile, Covid19 continued to exhibit characteristics of a pandemic, spreading rapidly around the world. Not only did Dr Tedros and his team fail to declare a public health emergency, they urged the international community to not spread fear and stigma by imposing travel restrictions. The global health body even criticised early travel restrictions by the US as being excessive and unnecessary. Following the WHO’s advice, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) suggested that the probability of virus infecting the EU was low, likely delaying more robust border controls by European states.
These early missteps by the global health body have proved fatal to thousands around the world and will likely adversely affect the lives of millions who now confront a prolonged tragedy and an economic slowdown. Part of the problem can be traced to the WHO’s long-simmering organisational challenges. It is chronically underfunded and has come under repeated scrutiny for its unwieldy bureaucracy and opaque regional offices. Indeed, the WHO’s response to Ebola was similarly criticised by the international community.
But that is not the only problem. It is equally clear that shaping the international health response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is one more front in the shifting sands of global power. This is not a first in the WHO’s history. In the 1950s and ’60s, the WHO found itself manoeuvring between the Soviet led Communist bloc and the US. Later, through the 1990s and early-2000s, the WHO was embroiled in a ‘North-South’ debate over pharmaceuticals, intellectual property rights and access to medicine.
China’s growing clout in international organisations is creating new fault lines in global politics, and the WHO has been an early frontline victim. Remember, the WHO, then led by Margret Chan, was one of the first international institutions to have signed an MoU with China to advance health priorities under the contested Belt and Road Initiative. Chan, a Chinese-Canadian, has strong links to the Mainland. Her successor, the Ethiopian politician Tedros, was also seen as a Chinese-backed candidate, a view that recent weeks have only reinforced.
Although the outbreak of the novel coronavirus may bear many resemblances to the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, China’s response and that of the international community do not. During the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, the WHO had strongly criticised China’s opaque data practices and delayed efforts at international cooperation. Subsequently China fired its Health Minister and the Mayor of Beijing in a rare public admission of the early errors it had made.
At that time, China officially disclosed over 1,800 infections and nearly 80 deaths. Today, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 persons and killed over 3,000 individuals in China alone. Yet, China has not only attempted to censor all official accounts of its early failings but has also employed an overt global disinformation campaign, trying to pinpoint the source of the outbreak as the US or Europe.
The WHO’s overt deference to China’s interests despite this behaviour should be an immediate warning sign to democracies around the world. Over the past decade, Beijing has steadily filled the vacuum in international institutions resulting from the Western democracies, especially the US, cutting funding and participation in these institutions. India has lost battles to China as well—most recently withdrawing its nominee for the Food and Agricultural Organization facing inevitable defeat at the hands of China’s candidate. It is an irony of our times that the world’s most potent authoritarian state heads over a quarter of all specialised agencies in the UN, ostensibly the centrepiece of the international liberal order.
Belatedly, the free world has begun to hit back. The recent victory of the Singaporean candidate in elections to appoint the new director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization was a setback to Chinese attempts to capture a prized regulatory and norm-setting institution. Will the WHO be the next battleground? To prevent #ViralGlobalisation it must.
The author is president, Observer Research Foundation (India). Views are personal.
The article originally appeared on the ORF website.