Health

WHO’s to blame? US and world health body exchange blows over Covid-19

World Health Organisation Director General director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
World Health Organisation Director General director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus VIA REUTERS - Christopher Black/WHO

The World Health Organization has called for global unity in fighting the coronavirus, following US President Donald Trump's stinging criticism and threat to withdraw funding over its handling of the pandemic. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has hit back at accusations that the body was too close to China.

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Friday 10 April marks 100 days since the WHO was first notified of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China

The UN health agency has faced criticism in the past both for overreacting and for moving too slowly in fighting epidemics.

But rarely has it been as scrutinised as with the current pandemic.

On 8 April, Trump accused the WHO of having "called it wrong" and acted months too late, while taking US money but favouring China.

US and Hong Kong media claim that the virus was already known about in November 2019 and that China knowingly withheld information that could have prevented the global nature of the pandemic.

Too close to China

The US also sharply criticised WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for being too close to China.

"The WHO really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look," Trump said on Twitter.

“Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?"

From very early on, Tedros was quick to advocate the Chinese government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

On 28 January, he met President Xi Jinping in Beijing where he said China was “setting a new standard for outbreak control” while praising the country’s top leadership for its “openness to sharing information” with the WHO and other countries. 

'Spreading rumours'

That didn’t go down well with Beijing’s critics. “In Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, Chinese officials were busy arresting and punishing citizens for ‘spreading rumours’ about the disease, while online censors controlled the flow of information,” writes Michael Collins, a research associate with the US Council for Foreign Relations.

But it didn't prevent Tedros from continuing his praise, he adds 

Don't politicise the virus

Tedros was quick to hit back. In a stern defence of the WHO's handling of the pandemic, which has now killed nearly 95,000 people and infected more than 1.5 million, Tedros said "the United States and China should come together and fight this dangerous enemy". 

"The focus of all political parties should be to save their people. Please don't politicise this virus.

"If you want to have many more body bags, then you do it. If you don't want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicising it,” he said.

Disaster

Withdrawal of US funding would be a disaster for the WHO.

According to its 2018 financial statement, the organisation received a total of $2.74 billion in funding.

The largest contributors are the US, with $281 million, the UK ($205 million), Germany ($154 million) and Japan ($86 million). From the African continent, the Democratic Republic of Congo stands out with a contribution of $24 million.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest non-institutional donor with a massive $228 million – the second largest contributor overall behind the US.   

China contributed only $6 million. Two Chinese vaccine manufacturers, Beijing Tiantan Biological Products and Sinovac Biotech Ltd, both based in the Chinese capital, contributed a combined $92,000.

Generous support

While rejecting Trump's stinging criticism, the WHO chief nonetheless made sure to thank the US it for its generosity in funding global health initiatives like the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank the US for its generous support so far," Tedros told reporters in a virtual briefing.

Despite Trump's treat to "have a good look" at US funding, Tedros added that he believed the US "will continue to contribute its share".

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