Covid-19’s willing accomplice

How Tedros Ghebreyesus and the WHO devastated the world to flatter China

Artillery Row

The World Health Organisation was envisaged as a shield against the onslaught of disease. Under Tedros Adhonam Ghebreyesus, it has mutated into an accomplice to the spread of disease. The success of the pathogen that has now devoured more than 135,000 lives, paralysed the most advanced societies on earth, ransacked the biggest economies, and pulverised the prospects of a generation of young people the world over, is the consequence in large part of the WHO’s failure to alert the world to the pathogen’s lethal character. This failure was not an oversight or an accident. From the outset of COVID-19’s outbreak, the WHO’s obligation to prepare the world was subordinated to its leadership’s determination to protect China from scrutiny. Informants who rang the alarm were disregarded and information that could have averted a calamity was withheld from the world. 

Consider the chronology. On 31 December, as cases of Covid-19 multiplied in Wuhan, Taiwan warned the WHO of the possibility of human-to-human transmission. The warning was ignored because the WHO, in deference to the Communist Party of China, refuses to recognise Taiwan. Two weeks later, on 14 January, the authorities in Wuhan conceded to the locals that the “possibility of limited human-to-human transmission cannot be excluded”. On the same day, while the head of the WHO’s emerging diseases unit suggested in a press briefing that human-to-human transmission could not be ruled out, the WHO assured the world in a news release and a tweet that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”. The complacency bred by this assurance was compounded by Tedros’s refusal to declare a global health emergency. Rather than verify or treat with even a modicum of professional scepticism the information pumped out by Beijing, Tedros tripped over himself as he applauded the “transparency” of an impenetrably secretive one-party state with a long history of covering up deadly outbreaks. Meeting President Xi Jinping on 28 January, Tedros lavished florid praise on the Chinese government for its “timely and effective measures in dealing with the epidemic”. 

It was a surreal performance: millions had by then fled Wuhan and the virus, having seeped out of China weeks before, had spread as far as America and Europe. But advancing a pre-emptive exoneration of China and preserving its interests appeared to be Tedros’s principal preoccupations at every step. His belated declaration of an international health emergency, on 30 January, was accompanied by the clarification that it was “not a vote of no confidence in China.” “On the contrary,” Tedros emphasised, “the WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.” The virus had by then infiltrated 18 countries and devoured hundreds of lives. When 22 countries, including the United States and India, decided to ban flights from China, Tedros took great umbrage. “Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma”, said the man who had just extolled Xi Jinping’s iron-fisted lockdown of Wuhan as evidence of the Chinese dictator’s “solid political resolve”.

Life has been granted to those who defied the WHO; death has crippled those who obeyed it

Italy, Spain, and Britain were among the trillion-dollar economies that carried on more or less as normal after that. Even some of the most distinguished newspapers and broadcasters in the West cautioned against reacting too aggressively by citing the WHO’s guidelines. The “World Health Organisation explicitly did not advise that any restriction of trade or travel was necessary … Cancelling flights, cruises, and locking down borders when it’s not advised by international agencies will be not only an act of economic self-harm but also a wasted opportunity,” stated an op-ed in the New York Times on 5 February lambasting travel restrictions. This attitude of enlightened unwariness became universally unfashionable only after 11 March, the day on which Tedros declared a pandemic—six weeks after rhapsodising in Beijing that “China’s measures are not only protecting its people, but also protecting the people in the whole world”. The Covid-19 fatalities in the intervening period climbed from 132 to 4,628. 

Here is the one of the bitterest truths of this pandemic. Life has been granted to those who defied the WHO; death has crippled those who obeyed it. Taiwan, which ignored altogether the WHO’s guidance, has registered the greatest success against Covid-19: thus far, there have been six fatalities and under 450 cases in a country of 24 million people that is situated less than a hundred miles from China. It is those nations that allowed themselves to be assuaged into complacency by the WHO that have paid the steepest cost in life and treasure. Invented to safeguard lives, the WHO endangered them by withholding from the world Taiwan’s expertise. Rather than absorb, distil, and disseminate the lessons of Taiwan’s model response, the WHO erected itself as a firewall between Taiwan and the world. It did everything possible to squelch lifesaving information while cutting us off from the one country that could have taught us the best practices to thwart this catastrophe. Taiwan is an outcast at the WHO, and it is an outcast because China has decreed so. As part of a 2005 understanding between China and the WHO, all contact with Taiwan must be approved by Beijing. We are dying, to put it plainly, because our lives have been subordinated to the political fixations of the CPC: because it wishes to subsume Taiwan, we are required to uphold the elaborate pretence—even to the peril of our lives—that Taiwan does not exist as an independent country. 

Those who advance the abject explanation that the WHO’s submission to China is the condition of obtaining Beijing’s cooperation cannot actually cite many instances of Beijing’s cooperation—or the benefit of such cooperation to the world or even to ordinary Chinese people. Is the WHO gaining deeper access to China and enhancing the lives of people in remote parts of that vast country? Far from it: like all other international agencies, its access to China is severely restricted. By the WHO’s own admission, China now relies almost entirely on its own expertise and finances. The predominant objective of the WHO now is to persuade China to “contribute to global health”. This pandemic demonstrates that, whatever might be the tangible advantages of the policy of genuflecting permanently to the communist overlords of China in the hope of influencing their behaviour, they are hugely outweighed by the disadvantages. Beijing’s contribution to the WHO’s paltry budget, for instance, is relatively modest: the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation gives more to the WHO than the world’s second largest economy. And the critical equipment Beijing has dispatched to the world at grossly inflated prices—its “contribution to global health”—is riddled with defects and has hampered rather than helped the battle against the contagion whose global march the CPC’s early cover-up did so much to accelerate.

Mitigations are now being fabricated for the mystifying choices of Tedros. His failures, we are told, are really a reflection of the WHO’s limitations. This comfortingly verisimilar argument, however, overlooks an important truth: Tedros is vested with more powers than any of his predecessors—powers crafted for him explicitly to forestall another deadly cover-up of the kind China engaged in following the SARS outbreak in 2003. Coming into effect in 2017, they accorded the WHO’s director-general the authority to declare a global health emergency and to act on information from non-state actions. Tedros chose not to exercise that authority. From the doctors in Wuhan who were silenced by the Chinese establishment for ringing the alarm on the outbreak to the Taiwanese officials who attempted desperately to warn the WHO of the coming calamity, non-state actors were either ignored or rebuffed with contempt. Instead, Tedros made the WHO wholly reliant on the notoriously secretive regime of China, scaffolded it from criticism, and relayed its falsehoods as facts to the world. None of this excuses the horrific incompetence of individual governments. But if Beijing’s pernicious lies found acceptance in the crucial early weeks of the outbreak, it is because they came draped in the imprimatur of the WHO’s director-general. 

Tedros’s inaugural act as the new chief of the WHO was to affirm his commitment to the “One-China” principle

“Don’t politicise this virus”, Tedros now says. But repeating the puerile detail that the virus knows no politics cannot obscure the harrowing fact that the scale of this tragedy is the product of expressly political choices. As a politician in Ethiopia, Tedros served as health minister under Meles Zenawi, the strongman who presided over his country’s conversion into Africa’s “Little China”, before moving to the foreign ministry. Despite his shoddy response to cholera epidemics in Ethiopia—which he euphemistically described as “acute watery diarrhoea” to prevent international spotlight from falling on the hideousness of the regime he served—and despite not being a medical doctor, Tedros was plucked by the African Union as its candidate for the top job at the WHO in a purely political process in 2017. Competitors such as Senegal’s health minister Dr Awa Marie Coll-Seck were pushed aside by the AU, acting on the guidance of its then chair Robert Mugabe. Tedros’s most serious international rival in the race for his current post, David Nabarro, the British doctor who had overseen the UN’s efforts against avian flu and Ebola, was custom-made for this crisis. But when his backers spoke about Tedros’s dismal record in Ethiopia, Tedros accused them of possessing a “typical colonial mindset”, prompting Nabarro to issue furious disavowals. The developing world united behind Tedros, but his victory in the international election that followed—the first vote of its kind—could not have been possible without China’s patronage. Nabarro, perceived to be “nicer to Taiwan”, stood no chance once Beijing began whipping the vote of poorer nations for Tedros, succeeding even in persuading India to back him in the cause of “south-south” solidarity. 

Nabarro bested, Tedros’s inaugural act as the new chief of the WHO was to affirm his commitment to the “One-China” principle in a meeting with China’s health minister—his first bilateral interaction, held a day after his election. And weeks after pledging to exclude Taiwan from the WHO, Tedros flew to Beijing and negotiated a partnership role for the WHO in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative—a political enterprise steeped in nakedly imperial ambitions. China, he declared in his message to the world after concluding his first official visit to Beijing, “is a model for other countries in how to make our world fairer, healthier and safer”. Always eager to exhibit initiative when it came to making the WHO an accessory to China’s geopolitical objectives, Tedros never displayed the slightest inclination to protect the WHO’s other member states from China’s delinquencies. 

Once the proliferating casualties of Covid-19 began casting into agonising relief the human cost of his subservience to Beijing, the director-general adopted a new posture. To question him, he began implying, was to insult Africa. He didn’t given a “damn” about personal attacks, he explained to the press on 8 April, but “when the whole black community was insulted, when Africa was insulted,” he could no longer remain silent. And who was behind the campaign against Africa? “We need to be honest,” said Tedros dramatically. “This attack came from Taiwan”. The man who had refused to acknowledge the existence of Taiwan when it was warning him with information that might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives was holding it up for international vilification because a handful of anonymous bots pretending to be located in Taiwan—but operating out of China’s cyberwar factories—had spammed him on Twitter. He was ascribing to a country recognised by 22 nations the capacity to wage a sustained campaign of racist slander against an entire continent and a community. Taiwan is so completely locked out of the international system that, on the day of Tedros’s election in 2017, the only way Taiwanese officials in Geneva could witness the vote was by queuing up to join the gallery reserved for curious tourists. Tedros’s theatrical outrage against Taiwan for its supposed sponsorship of racism would be less galling if it were not accompanied by a wretched silence on his part about the degrading treatment of black people in China. Over the past few weeks, Africans living in China have been physically mauled. Distressing videos of what they are being made to endure are all over the internet. The AU has protested. Tedros, however, has not said a word. Why would a principled anti-racist apply the principle so discerningly? Hardly anyone remembers that in 2017, the most persistent opposition to the candidacy of the man portrayed in the international press as Africa’s pride came from ordinary Africans. Ethiopians who had endured the country’s torture chambers urged the world to reject Tedros. Their brethren held mass protests outside the Palace of Nations in Geneva when the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the WHO, convened to elect him. “It’s a travesty!” shouted one Ethiopian activist who had succeed in smuggling himself inside the hall. “Think again, Africa!” Tedros’s first major gift to the people of Africa as director-general of the WHO was the appointment of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador for placing “universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of [his] policies”. 

The cacophony of outrage from diplomats and health experts that compelled Tedros to withdraw that honour from the late Zimbabwean ruler then is absent today. Instead, the initial backlash against Tedros has given way to a bureaucratic closing of ranks following Donald Trump’s decision to defund the WHO. Those who once planted negative stories about Tedros in the press now fault his critics. He is acclaimed as the best director-general of the WHO since Gro Harlem Brundtland. To accept this tribute, we must forget the fact that Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, had proactively issued an advisory—the first in more than half a century—recommending against travel to China after the SARS outbreak and marshalled international opinion against the CPC for its suppression of information. 

Anger against the WHO is bubbling almost everywhere. It is a self-serving emotion for some leaders searching for ways to cover-up their own abysmal dereliction of duty. Whatever the purpose, anger is understandable. But it is not shrewd. A response informed by anger alone will be injurious to our own interests. The WHO, with all its manifest ills, is an asset: the expertise, skill, and toil of too many selfless people have gone into making it. Its failure, a symptom of the indifference of the developed and democratic nations to the institutions invented to order the world, should push them to reclaim and revive it, not retreat from it and abandon it. We must assert our collective ownership of the WHO and supervise its reform—not withdraw from it and allow it to become a tool of the autocrats in China. 

But any effort to set the world to rights must begin with a sincere introspection at home. China’s success in subverting the global institutions that were meant to regulate its actions is a blinding demonstration of the failure of the dominant post-Cold War wisdom of the West. For more than two decades, our leaders fostered a relationship of dependency with China actively hostile to our own interests by deluding us into the belief that they could order China’s behaviour. We are now realising that we were all along expendable extras in a farce. That farce must now be brought to a swift end. It is our citizenly duty in democracies to hold own governments to account, and failing to demand a total reassessment of our relationship with China would be an abdication of all that makes that duty worth performing. Perhaps we could begin by sublimating the impulse to tear down the WHO into a striving to reclaim it and restore it to its original purpose. Such an endeavour will have to begin with the rectification of the wrongfulness of Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO. Tedros is a puppet. We should cease acquiescing to the puppeteer. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover