The World Health Organization is under increasing fire for its response to the deadly spread of the coronavirus, largely for repeating talking points by the Chinese Communist Party that played down the threat.
The situation could prompt a congressional investigation once lawmakers reconvene, or after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic that the U.S. government says could kill more than 100,000 Americans.
LiveScience reported that the coronavirus had infected at least 211,413 Americans and killed 4,713 as of Wednesday evening.
The World Health Organization, an arm of the United Nations, found out Dec. 30 about the spread of a disease in Wuhan, China, thought to be pneumonia. More than two months later, on March 11, WHO declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic.
“WHO coordinates the international COVID-19 response in a transparent way and publishes on its website guidance, recommendations, reports, and any other information that can help countries and individuals to respond to the coronavirus,” Tarik Jašarevic, a WHO spokesman, told The Daily Signal in an email as part of a detailed response to a series of questions.
Here are some things Americans should know about the World Health Organization, which the U.N. founded in 1948 with the mission of providing health assistance to countries, setting international health standards, and coordinating responses to global health emergencies.
1. How Much Do U.S. Taxpayers Give to WHO?
The World Health Organization has an annual budget of $3.8 billion.
According to WHO, contributions from the U.S. government, American citizens, and U.S.-based charities make up 76% of all voluntary contributions to the organization. That amounted to $945.6 million from 2016 to 2017.
China’s contribution to the World Health Organization, by contrast, was $86 million total, according to WHO. The organization isn’t financially reliant on China, which gives less than 10% of what the United States gives.
2. Will Congress Investigate WHO?
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., called this week for a congressional probe of the organization, based largely on what he considers a lack of warning to the world about the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
“The mission of the WHO is to get public health information to the world so every country can make the best decisions to keep their citizens safe. When it comes to coronavirus, the WHO failed,” Scott said in a prepared statement.
“They need to be held accountable for their role in promoting misinformation and helping communist China cover up a global pandemic,” he said.
Scott noted that the Chinese government covered up the coronavirus from its own public and the rest of the world:
We know communist China is lying about how many cases and deaths they have, what they knew and when they knew it—and the WHO never bothered to investigate further. Their inaction cost lives. As soon as Congress is back in session, there should be a hearing, along with a full investigation, to review whether American taxpayers should continue to spend millions of dollars every year to fund an organization that willfully parroted propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party.
Jašarevic, the WHO spokesman, said the organization has worked with all countries.
“Part of WHO’s mandate is to inform all member states and we do it both through bilateral exchanges and through weekly briefings where all countries are invited,” Jašarevic said.
He added in his email response to The Daily Signal:
Throughout the outbreak, there have been regular and frequent meetings and discussions between WHO leadership & technical experts from around the world, including U.S. government officials. In addition, two U.S. government experts—one from the CDC and one from NIH/NIAID—took part in the WHO-led international joint mission to China earlier this year. Also, NIH, HHS, and CDC leadership are consulted regularly. WHO also appreciates the U.S. as its one of the most important donors.
The WHO spokesman’s references were to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the National Institutes of Health; the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and the Department of Health and Human Services.
3. What Has WHO Said About China?
On Jan. 14, WHO unquestioningly circulated China’s official talking points in a tweet, saying:
Of course, the virus is highly contagious, a characteristic that has prompted quarantines and self-quarantines around the globe.
On Jan. 23, WHO determined COVID-19 could be spread by humans.
After new evidence that China silenced whistleblowers and doctors in that country, and that Communist Party officials were aware of the spread well before reporting it, WHO continued to extol China’s response and transparency.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said Jan. 30 that “China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response.”
China’s state-run media regularly uses soundbites from WHO’s assistant director-general, Bruce Aylward, to buttress the government’s propaganda campaign.
At a minimum, China’s authoritarian government tried to raise doubt about the origins of the disease, while some officials blamed the U.S. Army for planting the virus in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.
State-run outlets such as Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, and China Daily showed clips of Aylward at a Feb. 27 press conference in which he said: “If I had COVID-19, I’d want to be treated in China.”
Aylward, a Canadian physician and epidemiologist, also said of China: “They’ve done this at scale, they know what they’re doing. They’re really, really good at it, and they’re really keen to help.”
On Dec. 31, the Chinese government first reported what was thought to be pneumonia in Wuhan, Jašarevic said. WHO moved to confirm that announcement with the Chinese government and requested additional information Jan. 1, he said.
“The [Chinese] government subsequently met with the WHO country office, and provided further updates on 3 January,” the spokesman said in the email to The Daily Signal. “The government also made a second public statement on the Wuhan Health Commission website on 3 January.”
Jašarevic noted that WHO got the message to the public.
On Jan. 1, he said, WHO activated its emergency response mechanism across the organization’s headquarters, regional office, and the China office. Four days later, it issued a summary of the situation that it shared with member states.
The WHO spokesman provided factual information and a detailed timeline to The Daily Signal, but did not respond directly to this question: “Is it still the position of the WHO that China has been transparent and honest?”
In his email reply, Jašarevic said:
China is working directly with us through our various expert networks, and regularly shares information on public health measures taken, epidemiological data and biological studies, clinical management, travel measures, and prevention measures via official channels. …
A small mission from WHO Country and Regional offices was sent to Wuhan mid-January and the Director-General visited Beijing in January also, along with technical experts. Then the WHO-China joint mission of 25 national and international experts was held from 16-24 February 2020. It was led by Dr. Bruce Aylward of WHO and Dr. Wannian Liang of the People’s Republic of China. Dr. Aylward is currently a WHO Senior Advisor.
4. What Are the Political Ties Between WHO’s Chief and China?
China backed Tedros in May 2017 when he ran for World Health Organization director-general.
Chinese diplomats “worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help Tedros defeat the United Kingdom candidate for the WHO job, David Nabarro,” Washington Post columnist Frida Ghitis wrote.
“Tedros’ victory was also a victory for Beijing, whose leader Xi Jinping has made public his goal of flexing China’s muscle in the world,” the column continued.
On Feb. 3, after the United States and other countries blocked travel from China, Tedros said: “There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade. We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.”
After Trump referred to the coronavirus as a “foreign virus” and later as the “China virus,” Tedros tweeted March 17: “Kind quick reminder: viruses have no nationality.”
A Chinese government-run media outlet, Xinhua News, promoted the WHO leader’s comment.
Jašarevic, the WHO spokesman, stressed that the director-general regularly has consulted leaders from numerous countries on COVID-19 and has aggressively called for all developed countries to tackle the problem.
“When it comes to advice to countries WHO has repeatedly and consistently called for a comprehensive package of measures countries should take,” the spokesman said in the email.
Jašarevic referred to a Feb. 21 address in which Tedros warned all countries to act.
“WHO’s director-general urged countries to fight the outbreak without regrets; to unite and build on the solidarity already sparked by the crisis; and to ignite the industrial might and innovation of the G-20 to produce and distribute the tools needed to save lives,” he said, referring to the so-called Group of 20, made up of representatives of industrial and emerging-market nations.
While every country makes its decisions based on its own risk assessment and context, WHO encourages increasing testing and mobilizing government and citizens to take action to fight COVID-19. We call on all countries to take strong action as early as possible when doing so can have the greatest impact.
Dr. Tedros has helmed regular press conferences nearly daily for months—his proactive approach to communicating about the coronavirus response has been emulated by leaders in such countries as U.K. and U.S.
At a White House press briefing on the coronavirus March 25, the question came up about Tedros’ praise for China’s response to and leadership on COVID-19
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, defended the WHO director-general.
“So, Tedros is really an outstanding person. I’ve known him from the time that he was the Minister of Health of Ethiopia,” Fauci said. “I mean, obviously, over the years, anyone who says that the WHO has not had problems has not been watching the WHO. But I think, under his leadership, they’ve done very well. He has been all over this. I was on the phone with him a few hours ago leading a WHO call.”
When pressed on Tedros’ praise for China’s response, after that nation’s role in his winning the top WHO post, Fauci was less clear.
“I can’t comment on that because, I mean, I don’t have any viewpoint into it. I mean, I don’t even know what your question is,” Fauci said.
Trump responded, seeming to refer to the WHO director-general’s opposition to the travel ban on China.
“I spoke to him yesterday; seems fine to me, I don’t know,” Trump said of Tedros. “But we’re the ones that gave the great response, and we’re the ones that kept China out of here. And if I didn’t do it, you’d have thousands and thousands of people died—who would’ve died—that are now living and happy. If I didn’t do that early call on China—and nobody wanted that to happen. Everybody thought it was … just unnecessary to do it, and if we didn’t do that, thousands and thousands of people would have died, more than what’s happened.”
5. Where Does Taiwan Fit In?
Taiwan health officials warned the World Health Organization that the new coronavirus could spread through human-to-human contact before WHO recognized this fact Jan. 23.
WHO initially followed the China line that the virus could not spread through human-to-human contact, according to Institut Montaigne, a think tank in France.
But political considerations were in play.
Taiwan considers itself an independent country and China considers it a province. Unlike China, however, Taiwan got an early handle on the coronavirus and was able to beat back the spread.
Taiwan would be an international success story, except WHO keeps Taiwan and China statistics together.
WHO also excluded Taiwan from its emergency meeting on COVID-19 in January.
Taiwan’s status could begin to change on the international stage, said Dean Cheng, senior fellow for Asian studies at The Heritage Foundation.
“China wants Taiwan to be in a tighter box than they were before COVID-19,” Cheng told The Daily Signal. “They will not want Taiwan to be a participant in the World Health Organization. But many European countries have said Taiwan should have a seat at the table.”
WHO doesn’t seem eager.
Journalist Yvonne Tong of the Hong Kong news outlet RTHK, interviewed Aylward, WHO’s assistant director-general, about COVID-19. Tong asked about Taiwan.
Aylward was silent, said he couldn’t hear the question, then said he wanted a different question. When Tong asked again about Taiwan, the call was disconnected.
After Tong called back and asked again about Taiwan, Aylward said: “We’ve already talked about China.”
That answer reflected the political view of China. Aylward then wished her luck and ended the interview.
Jašarevic, the WHO spokesman, had more to say when asked whether the organization would consider Taiwan as a member.
“Some people are confusing WHO’s technical global public health mandate with the mandate of countries to determine WHO’s membership. Please note that countries decide this,” he said in the email to The Daily Signal, adding:
The WHO Secretariat focuses on keeping the world safe. This includes the Taiwanese people. We serve them through regular interactions with Taiwanese experts and authorities on vital public health issues. This has been the case over many years, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is understandable that some people might think that the composition of WHO’s membership affects our ability to keep the world safe. But it is important to understand both how we are governed and how we operate in practice.
Jašarevic explained that since 1971, countries participating in the United Nations General Assembly recognized the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China under Resolution 2758.
“Since 1972, when the World Health Assembly decided in WHA Resolution 25.1 to follow what the UN did, this has governed Chinese and Taiwanese status in WHO,” he said.