04/15/2020, 15.05
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Guterres -Trump in standoff over ‘pro-China’ WHO

by Bernardo Cervellera

The US president is threatening to cut funds to the UN health agency. The UN secretary general responds that "this is not the time" to cut resources in the fight against the coronavirus. Beyond ideological readings, the WHO has followed China's indications step by step in keeping silent about the coronavirus, on human-to-human transmission, on delaying the pandemic alarm, on stifling Taiwan's help. Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the first to politicize the global health issue.

Rome (AsiaNews) - The UN secretary, Antonio Guterres has defended the World Health Organization against US President Donald Trump, who has announced that he wants to cut funds to the WHO for failing to manage the Covid pandemic- 19.

A similar charge has been laid at the UN Health agency’s door by other members, not just the United States, with complaints that the WHO is dominated by China.

Yesterday, in a meeting with reporters, Trump accused the WHO of having "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread" of the pandemic.

“Other nations and regions who followed WHO guidelines and kept their borders open to China accelerated the pandemic all around the world,” Trump said. “The WHO failed to investigate credible reports from sources in Wuhan that conflicted directly with the Chinese government’s official accounts.”

This has propelled the US president’s desire to cut the funds that the United States pays to the WHO every year. Last year Washington poured in $ 400 million, almost 15% of the UN health budget.

It is not clear whether Trump will be able to act directly: contributions to the WHO in themselves need congressional approval.

For his part, Guterres, in a written declaration, stressed that the crisis that the world is experiencing needs everyone's support. He admitted that there may be "different interpretations" in the body's work. "“Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis,” he wrote. “The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges, as they may arise in the future. But now is not that time" to cut resources in the fight against coronavirus.

For several analysts, Trump's words are dictated by frustration: Over a very short space of time, the United States has become the country with the most coronavirus victims, with 25 thousand deaths and 600 thousand positive cases. Worldwide, the pandemic has so far killed more than 125,000 people and infected nearly 2 million individuals.

In addition, the pandemic was politicized as a clash between the "Chinese model" and the "US model", or more generally "Western". The "Chinese" one, praised by the WHO, seems to have been successful in containing the epidemic, reaching just over 83 thousand infected and 3300 dead. Seen in this lens, Trump is targeting China to maintain US global supremacy.

But beyond any ideological interpretations, there are some facts that reveal an over dependence of the WHO on Beijing.

First of all, the epidemic discovered already in December 2019 and reported by several doctors in Wuhan, was not taken into consideration by the WHO, which followed the Chinese government indications, despite the fact this stifled the complaints and reassured the world that there was nothing to fear.

In late December, leading Taiwanese personalities warned the WHO about the human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus epidemic. But since Taiwan is not recognized as a member of the body because it is officially part of China, its warnings were not taken into consideration. Until January 14, the WHO has maintained the same position as Beijing: there were no signs of human-to-human transmission of the virus.

On January 22, while coronavirus infections were registered in South Korea, Japan and Thailand, the WHO refused to issue a global alert. On January 23, Beijing placed Wuhan and Hubei under close quarantine.

On February 4, when Italy and the US had already closed flights to and from China, WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized the decision because this may have "the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with no tangible benefit in terms of public health."

On February 26, Tedros was still unsure whether to declare a global pandemic. Tedros observed on 26 February, “but it does have significant risk [and there was a risk] in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems. It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true.” At this point the main country worrying about stigma was China. 

Only on 11 March did the WHO declare the pandemic. At that point there were already 114 countries involved.

There are two other elements that show the UN body’s "dependence" on China: firstly that of wanting to remove any geographical or ethnic indication from the disease, and slating its being termed the "Wuhan" virus or "Chinese pneumonia". The other is the way in which a WHO advisor, Bruce Aylward, declined to comment on the "Taiwan model" on the victory against the virus, after the question was posed to him by a Hong Kong journalist.

Faced with Trump's criticism, Tedros has often asked that the WHO's work not be "politicized". The real problem is that he and his colleagues are the ones to politicize first and foremost.

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