The WHO's early failures on the pandemic are exposed

The Associated Press has been digging into the track record of the World Health Organization (a branch of the United Nations) in terms of the handling of the pandemic and leaking out some internal communications that have gone on there over the months when the disease was spreading over the globe. They start off their report with what appears to be a puff piece for Joe Biden, talking about how the WHO is “hopeful” that the next president will cancel Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the organization and cut off their funding. The agency’s annual meeting is underway this week and they’re clearly ramping up the pressure to bring the United States back into the fold.

But the report also reveals the seeming confusion that reigned at the WHO over how to handle the pandemic and their inability to stand up to member nations who they felt were not dealing with the disease effectively. It’s suggested that the group’s members were fearful of angering any countries that provide them with a lot of funding by publicly criticizing them.

With its annual meeting underway this week, WHO has been sharply criticized for not taking a stronger and more vocal role in handling the pandemic. For example, in private internal meetings in the early days of the virus, top scientists described some countries’ approaches as “an unfortunate laboratory to study the virus” and a “macabre” opportunity to see what worked, recordings obtained by The Associated Press show. Yet in public, the U.N. health agency lauded governments for their responses.

Biden has promised to overturn President Donald Trump’s decision in June to cut off funds to WHO and withdraw the U.S. WHO has also bowed to demands from member countries for an independent panel to review its management of the pandemic response, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday that the agency welcomed “any and all attempts” to strengthen it “for the sake of the people we serve.”

The internal conversations obtained by the AP suggest that the WHO felt nations including Japan, France and Britain were “making mistakes” in the early days of the plague, but they still publicly commended them for their handling of it. That’s because those three nations are all major funders of the organization.

They also note that the WHO was meeting with officials in China as early as the middle of January and privately asking why more information on the virus wasn’t being shared. But immediately after those meetings, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the media that “China is doing many good things that are slowing the virus and the facts speak for themselves.” A similar pattern of private concern and public praise was seen with Italy and France.

None of this addresses the underlying questions of the WHO’s competence or decision-making processes. As you may recall, the organization knew about the initial outbreak of the virus in China as early as late December of last year. But despite repeated prodding from affected nations, the WHO didn’t declare COVID-19 to be a global pandemic until March 11th, long after the virus had traveled all the way around the globe. That was an obvious case of the horse having long since left the barn before closing the door.

Most of the critics quoted in the Associated Press article are calling for the WHO to “get tougher” and start using its “political muscle” to push countries into compliance with their guidelines. But that’s a rather silly suggestion to make after pointing out how poorly they have handled this health crisis and how they’ve politicized the entire process. Further, the WHO doesn’t have any “muscle” to flex in these matters. They play a strictly advisory role. Neither the United States nor any other country is under any obligation to implement policies based on the WHO’s guidelines. The WHO and the United Nations only exist by the goodwill of their member states. Each nation has to make its own decisions on how to deal with such matters and then live with the consequences of their choices.

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