WHO’s CORONA Strategy and its Criticism

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Feature Desk

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. It is a part of U.N. Sustainable Development Group. Although WHO’s main objective is ensuring “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health,” there are controversies in many of the actions on the recent CORONA virus issue, those were not appropriate which resulted sufferings of the millions around the globe.

Role of WHO in Public Health

  • Providing leadership on matters critical to health and engaging in partnerships where joint action is needed.
  • Shaping the research agenda and stimulating the generation, translation and dissemination of valuable knowledge.
  • Setting norms and standards and promoting and monitoring their implementation.
  • Articulating ethical and evidence-based policy options.
  • Providing technical support, catalyzing change, and building sustainable institutional capacity.
  • Monitoring the health situation and assessing health trends.

According to the roles as mentioned above, since the identification of first COVID 19 patient, if all the actions and decisions of WHO are analyzed, there might be number of controversies.

The Controversial Strategy of WHO

On 27 Feb 2020, China reported 329 CORONA virus infected cases and within a month, the total number of cases raised to 79,251; outside of China, there were only 4351 CORONA virus infected cases in 49 countries, and 67 deaths. At present there are more than half a million infected cases outside of China.

The SARS CoV2 originated in wet market of Wuhan. Initially the Chinese government’s slow response and trying to hide the cases resulted in the global pandemic. A barrage of criticism has been heaped at World Health Organization, saying WHO aided and abetted the Chinese propaganda.

The first cases of the virus were seen in Wuhan in the month of November 2019 but the Chinese government silenced the whistleblowers and downplayed the threat. It was only in mid/late January that China woke up to tackle the virus, thus giving two months to COVID19 to spread unabated. In this regard, the support of WHO assisted China a lot. On 14 January 2020, WHO reinforced the Chinese statement that ‘No Clear Evidence of human to Human transmission of the Novel Corona Virus’.

Photo-1: WHO Statement on 14 Jan 2020

The WHO refused to acknowledge the human to human transmission of the virus despite several cases already showing transmission. On 31 December 2019, in a Twitter message, WHO published that ‘WHO does not recommend any specific health measures for travellers to and from Wuhan, China’.

Photo-2: WHO Statement on 31 December 2019

Taiwan recently confirmed that it had warned the WHO about human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 on 31 December 2019[1]. However, the WHO did not publish the requested information on its internal website. On 08 January 2020, WHO praised China’s identification of the virus and did not recommend any specific travel measures for travellers.

While identifying a new disease by its place of origin seems natural. But WHO’S recommended name for the disease “COVID-19.”

WHO made a huge delay to term the situation Pandemic that made the different countries around the world less prepared to address this disaster. On 11 March 28, 2020, WHO declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. At that time there were 118,000 cases, more than 4,000 deaths around the world. It is to be mentioned that on 24 February 2020, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “Using the word ‘pandemic’ now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear.”[2] It is assumed that the early declaration of the situation as Pandemic, would provide more space for taking adequate preparation of countering COVID-19.

Photo- 3: The Rise of COVID-19 affected cases

Despite prevailing evidence that the situation in China was spiraling out of control, Adhanom had still praised China for containing the outbreak stunningly, which was not that in line with other country’s reaction. He also said “widespread travel bans not needed to beat China virus” in first week of February 2020.

Possible Reasons of WHO’s Controversial Stand

Present Director-General of the WHO Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the Ex- Health minister of Ethiopia. China is doing a massive development in Ethiopia in the recent years[3]. Within the context of globalization, China unwaveringly pursues its “Chinese Dream” and has been deepening the comprehensive reforms involved in this. Ethiopia similarly is committed to its Ethiopian Renaissance, to fulfill its five-year Growth and Transformation Plan and achieve its Vision 2025 to become a middle income country. China is now the second largest economy in the world; and Ethiopia is emerging as one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and the world. Both countries are looking forward to greater opportunities of in-depth cooperation, and possibly they will be expanding bilateral relations in a number of areas.

In Late January, the DG visited China and on January 28, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Following the meeting, Tedros commended China for “setting a new standard for outbreak control” and praised the country’s top leadership for its “openness to sharing information” with the WHO and other countries.

Photo-4: Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Photo-5: Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Xi Jinping

During 2003 SARS outbreak, WHO’s stand was very strong, proactive and appropriate. The then DG Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland made history by declaring the WHO’s first travel advisory in 55 years which recommended against travel to and from the disease epicenter in southern China. Dr. Brundtland also criticized China for endangering global health by attempting to cover up the outbreak through its usual playbook of arresting whistleblowers and censoring media. Unfortunately, present DG Dr. Tedros’ indecision stands in blunt contrast to the WHO’s actions during the 2003 SARS outbreak in China.

Photo- 6: Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

In the recent years, China is the highest contributor for WHO; these contributions have grown by 52% since 2014 to approximately $86 million. WHO requires voluntary budgetary contributions to meet its broad mandate. At present, WHO has grown more reliant upon these funds to address budget deficits. This dependence on voluntary contributions leaves the WHO highly susceptible to the influence of individual countries or organizations.

A global pandemic does not happen every time a novel infectious pathogen[4] emerges. It happens when there is an absence of accurate information about the pathogen and a failure of basic public services; in this case, the failure to regulate food and marketplaces to prevent the transmission of pathogens, and the failure to shut down transportation and control movement once it spreads. When authorities regulate public health, share information about a pathogen, and cooperate to control its movement, diseases are contained and pandemics are unlikely.


[1] Taiwan says WHO failed to act on coronavirus transmission warning, https://www.ft.com/content/2a70a02a-644a-11ea-a6cd-df28cc3c6a68 , accessed on March 28, 2020.
[2] WHO tries to calm talk of pandemic, says the word “does not fit the facts”, https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/02/who-tries-to-calm-talk-of-pandemic-says-the-word-does-not-fit-the-facts/ , accessed on March 28, 2020.
[3] Ethiopia and the Chinese dream in Africa, https://www.rte.ie/news/world/2019/0423/1045064-ethiopia-china/ , accessed on March 28, 2020.
[4] A pathogen is a tiny living organism, such as a bacterium or virus,  that makes people sick.
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