If this is something short of complicity in a Chinese cover-up—which is what former National Security Adviser John Bolton has alleged of the WHO—it does point to a big vulnerability: The group’s membership includes transparent democracies and authoritarian states and systems in between, which means the information the WHO puts out is only as good as what it’s getting from the likes of Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. North Korea, for instance, has reported absolutely no coronavirus cases, and the WHO isn’t really in a position to say otherwise.
The structure also gives WHO leaders like Tedros an incentive not to anger member states, and this is as true of China as it is of countries with significantly less financial clout. During the Ebola epidemic in 2014, Clift said, WHO took months to declare a public-health emergency. “That’s three very small West African countries, and WHO didn’t want to upset them,” Clift said. “WHO didn’t cover itself in glory in that one.” The response this time has been much faster and better, in Clift’s observation. “It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be examined afterwards to see what they could have done better,” he said. “And one should really investigate the origins of what happened in China.”