While the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is now a discredited head of the UN health agency, thanks to his alleged nexus with the communist leadership of China, evidence has surfaced that the agency had been taken for a ride too. The WHO struggled to get the information it needed from China during the critical phase of the coronavirus outbreak, according to recordings of internal meetings that are not in sync with the organisation’s expression of appreciation of Beijing’s response to the impending doom.
News agency Associated Press (AP) accessed these recordings where WHO officials are heard complaining in meetings during the week beginning 6 January (Monday) that the Chinese government was not sharing data needed to evaluate the risk of the virus to the rest of the world.
It was only on 20 January that China confirmed coronavirus could spread from people-to-people contact. Ten days later, the WHO declared a global pandemic.
How China stonewalled WHO
“We’re going on very minimal information,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and the WHO technical lead for COVID-19, adding, “It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning.”
Gauden Galea, the WHO’s top official in China, said in one of the recordings: “We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV [Chinese state TV].”
This recording has surfaced when the world is suspicious of the way China handled the outbreak while several intelligence agencies from different countries are investigating the origin of the virus, which has made more than 6 million sick and killed more than 3,75,000 people around the world.
The comity of nations led by the United States criticised the WHO for consistently lauding China even when the world suspected Beijing was suppressing early warnings and information. The WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was in January praising China for “setting a new standard for outbreak response” in its swift and aggressive measures.
One WHO officer was more honest
However, Michael Ryan, the WHO’s chief of emergencies, had said in early January he was fearing a repeat of the 2002 SARS epidemic, which the recordings available now show Chinese officials had covered up back then.
The AP failed to get a response from the WHO’s office in China for comment on the recordings. Beijing rather said in a statement: “Our leadership and staff have worked night and day in compliance with the organisation’s rules and regulations to support and share information with all member states equally, and engage in frank and forthright conversations with governments at all levels.”
“This is exactly the same scenario, endlessly trying to get updates from China about what was going on,” AP quoted Ryan as saying. “The WHO barely got out of that one with its neck intact given the issues that arose around transparency in southern China,” the WHO official told the news agency.
Slamming China for not cooperating, Ryan advised exerting more pressure on Beijing. “This would not happen in Congo and did not happen in Congo and other places,” he said, apparently referring to the Ebola outbreak. “We need to see the data. It’s absolutely important at this point.”
But even before that, warnings and reports of a SARS-like virus began leaking from Wuhan in December. Even now, the media worldwide is loath to saying it was a Chinese conspiracy.
Chinese state media, meanwhile, announced on 9 January that the disease was a result of a new coronavirus but said it was not contagious. Did the WHO believed it? When it was reportedly struggling to get information from the authorities in Beijing, it did not tell the international community it was being stonewalled.
About two weeks later, officials admitted the virus was transmittable, as hospitals in the city were already flooded with patients and cases appeared across the Hubei province. Authorities locked down Wuhan on 23 January, but at least 5 million of its inhabitants had by then travelled to destinations across the world.
Pompeo blasts China’s communist regime
“So it’s a different Chinese Communist Party today than it was 10 years ago,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday. “And I think the remarks that President (Donald) Trump gave on Friday of this past week reflect that this is a Chinese Communist Party that has come to view itself as intent upon the destruction of Western ideas, Western democracies, Western values. It puts Americans at risk.”
Seizing the opportunity, Pompeo raised the Hong Kong issue as well. “We treated Hong Kong more favorably than we did China for all of those years because of that treaty,” Pompeo said, adding, “The Chinese Communist Party has now broken its promise and the United States will respond. As a practical matter, the president laid out a couple of things that we will do. He’s asked us to review every preferential treatment that Hong Kong had and work to eliminate. It no longer makes sense if the Chinese are going to treat Hong Kong the same way that they treat mainland China, there’s no basis for the United States to treat it differently as well.”
The US secretary of state urged European nations to join the American campaign against China’s communist regime, saying, “I think the populations in those countries are now seeing most clearly the risk the Chinese Communist Party presents,” Pompeo said. “This is what authoritarian regimes do. They steal information. They deny freedom of expression. They oppress their peoples and they present risk to people all across the world. Democracies behave completely differently. And I think the people of Europe will come to see that along with the United States, we can work together to build our economies, to protect our people and to keep the entire world in a place where the Chinese Communist Party does not dominate the next century.”