The World Health Organisation (WHO) has achieved great things, such as preventing an estimated 23.2 million deaths from measles, but it has also been found lacking far too often. Its actions during the covid-19 pandemic have only highlighted this.
When news broke about the pandemic’s appearance in the city of Wuhan, the WHO praised the Chinese approach to tackling the virus, calling it “ambitious and agile”.
Meanwhile the Chinese government instituted a crackdown on those who tried to spread awareness about the virus and instituted a failed lock-down in Wuhan. This could potentially have cost the world time and lives in being able to understand and fight the virus.
When 22 countries instituted restrictions to limit potential spread of the virus, the WHO chastised them for using their sovereign right to protect citizens, with the organisation’s reasoning it didn’t want to increase potential stigmatisation of China.
There is an important difference here, the WHO didn’t want China to be stigmatised, but what about the Chinese people? After all, the Chinese government was repeatedly assuring the WHO it had the situation under control.
The WHO’s belief in the Chinese government meant it failed to declare a public health emergency until the end of January. It failed to send international medical experts to examine data collected by China until 10 February, a month after the initial outbreak. This cost the world yet more valuable time.
Since 21 January, the WHO has issued daily reports on confirmed cases and global deaths, which are widely cited by the press and used by researchers to inform their enquiries into the virus.
However, the bulletins often contain errors, as the report for 16 March highlighted. It claimed the Philippines had no new recorded cases, even though its tally jumped from 111 to 140 in its report the day before.
When Oxford-based research group Our World In Data informed the WHO of this and other errors, the WHO corrected some figures but often without informing the public. This called into question analysis carried out by researchers who were unaware of the errors, potentially harming any solutions they might come up with.
However, signs of the WHO’s inefficiency was present long before coronavirus.
During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the WHO waited five months before declaring an emergency and sending workers to Africa to help with recovery efforts and investigate how to limit damage. It soon withdrew those workers, while Ebola went on to claim 11,310 lives.
The WHO has also been accused of wasting money on travel for representatives, with the AP reporting the organisation spent roughly “$200 million a year on travel expenses, which is more than it spends fighting the biggest problems in public health such as Aids”.
Then there is the political situation between China and Taiwan, which isn’t part of the WHO. During the SARS outbreak in 2002/3, Taiwanese scientists complained they were prevented from accessing data to inform their response by WHO officials, who told them to ask China for the data.
Taiwan has now accused the WHO of freezing the nation out of its deliberations regarding coronavirus, even though it said it had raised concerns as far back as December.
The WHO was set up with a noble goal in mind but its overt politicisation has led it to become an inefficient operator that bows to any country with clout, which is not a stable or secure system. Once the dust settles, the WHO needs to reform or face being abolished.