The US President Donald Trump accuses the World Health Organization (WHO) of “really screwing it up” in the coronavirus pandemic. He also suggested that WHO “probably” knew more at the beginning of the pandemic than it disclosed. The WHO was too focused on China anyway, it also gave the US wrong recommendations at the beginning of the crisis and criticized Trump for restricting entry.
Certainly, not a few would agree with the US President in a first reflex – rightly? Or is Trump distracting from the allegations of his own mistakes in handling the pandemic? We asked around.
Mr. Zumach *, is Trump right with his allegations to the WHO?
No. The majority of them are simply wrong. For example, the accusation that the WHO warned too late about the pandemic. In fact, it was already addressing an international health emergency. It is true that the WHO spoke out against travel restrictions at the end of January. But that made sense because at the time only 15 countries were affected by Covid-19, and 95 per cent of the cases occurred in China. This attitude was later corrected in line with global developments.
More false statements?
Unfortunately yes. Trump suggests that the WHO knew more about the emerging danger than it announced. This is purely a hypothesis – of all people who described Covid-19 as simple flu and even suspected the Democrats behind the virus. And: Contrary to what Trump claims, the United States is not the largest donor to the WHO. This is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, followed by the United States, then Great Britain.
The US President should actually know that …
Trump actually seems to me to be the most inappropriate critic of the WHO at the moment. Because the United States is to a large extent responsible for the fact that WHO has become heavily dependent on lobby interests of the pharmaceutical companies. For example, Ronald Reagan cut contributions in the 1980s. To compensate for this, the WHO opened up to private companies such as the Bill Gates Foundation. Meanwhile, 20 per cent of WHO funding comes from the Member States and 80 per cent from other sources. The fourth largest donor to the WHO, for example, is the Gavi vaccination Alliance, an association of all the major pharmaceutical companies in the world. The lobbyists of these pharmaceutical giants sit on the advisory committees of the WHO, which has a great influence.
Can you give an example of lobbyist influence in WHO?
In 2009, WHO declared swine flu a pandemic. However, there were only 152 deaths. A similar thing happened with bird flu. Back then, the whole world bought the flu drug Tamiflu, which was in the interests of the pharmaceutical giants. But when Ebola became a danger in 2014, the WHO reacted slowly. First and foremost, because they had been accused of scaring the swine and bird flu. In addition, the pressure from the pharmaceutical industry on WHO has failed to materialize because it has so far found no means against Ebola.
What reproach do you make to WHO in dealing with Covid-19?
Basically, it has to accept the accusation that she trusted China and the information from Wuhan in good faith. But: The WHO depends on the willingness of its members to provide information. Like the UN, it is only as good as its members are. So I share the criticism of WHO in this pandemic, but you also have to make the opposite conclusion: what else should WHO have done?
I will return the question to you.
You see, the WHO is always in a dilemma. When it declared the pandemic on March 11 – 115 of the 149 member states had already been affected – the Chinese UN ambassador to New York said on the same day that the situation was under control and that China was in the process, step by step Step back to normal. A hair-raising contradiction to which the WHO can hardly react.
How should Trump’s criticism of WHO ultimately be viewed?
All in all, it’s a ridiculous attempt to distract from your own mistakes in dealing with the virus. Among the developed industrialized countries, the United States is clearly not the worst in terms of handling the pandemic. The health care system is dilapidated, and the WHO’s recommendations for limiting or quantifying fat, sugar, or tobacco have been sidelined by the United States for years. Obesity and heart problems are correspondingly widespread among the population – bad conditions in this pandemic.
Could China be punished in any way for its lack of communication?
Certainly not through the WHO. The Member States would have to adopt such a sanction mechanism – and that would probably take years. It is doubtful whether the individual countries would adhere to them. I would also like to add: We do not really know anywhere whether the figures communicated by the governments are correct, because the process of collecting the case numbers differs in all countries. What is certain is that the number of unreported cases is extremely high everywhere. The situation is different only in countries such as South Korea or Taiwan, where 85 per cent of the population has been tested.
* Andreas Zumach is a German UN correspondent for the “Tageszeitung” (taz) based at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva.