Donald Trump (Image: PA/Stefani Reynolds)

For US President Donald Trump, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has become a target in the wake of the COVID-19 disaster unfolding in America — a disaster which has revealed a dysfunctional system and an administration reluctant to recognise the warning signs.

But how much of Trump’s attack on the WHO is true? And how much is a deflection from his own performance?

Inq compiled this compendium of the WHO’s transgressions — real or imagined.

Q: Did the WHO really appoint Robert Mugabe to be its goodwill ambassador?

A: Yes. It happened in October 2017. WHO’s newly-appointed director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made an early blunder when he announced the (now deceased) Zimbabwean dictator would be a WHO goodwill ambassador. He was forced to rescind the appointment four days later.

Dr Tedros, as he prefers to be known, is a former Ethiopian government minister with a PhD in community health from the UK’s Nottingham University. He is the first African leader of the WHO and the first to have no medical qualifications. 

Q: Did the WHO endorse dubious Chinese claims on COVID-19?

A: Yes, to a degree. On January 14 the WHO tweeted that “early investigations” showed Chinese authorities had found “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the coronavirus. 

Yet three days before — on January 11 — a CT scan of whistleblower doctor, Dr Li Wenliang, confirmed that both his lungs were infected with the new virus.

It was also known to Chinese officials that in the first days of January the number of infected Wuhan residents had jumped from 27 to 44.

The WHO tweet had the effect of amplifying to the world China’s own internal policy of restricting information and downplaying risk — a repeat of the SARS outbreak of 2003-04 when China was criticized by WHO members for downplaying the extent of the outbreak. 

Q: What about Taiwan?

A: Tricky. Taiwan has been one of the world’s undisputed leaders in containing the spread of the coronavirus, but it’s shut out of the WHO because of China’s opposition.

WHO’s geopolitical problem reached farcical heights when WHO’s assistant director-general Bruce Aylward appeared to dodge a question on Taiwan from a Hong Kong interviewer last month. Asked if the WHO might consider allowing Taiwan to join, Aylward claimed, after a long pause, that he had been unable to hear the question, asked to move to a different topic, and then appeared to hang up when pressed on Taiwan.

Q: Did the WHO really endorse the Chinese government’s decision to allow wet markets to re-open?

A: Yes it did. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg slammed the move as “unbelievable, extraordinary”. Scott Morrison called it “unfathomable”, given that a market in Wuhan city is considered the source of the COVID-19 virus, possibly from an infected bat. The infectious disease SARS is also thought to have emerged from animals, present in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002.

The term “wet” markets is often confused with a “wildlife” market. Both markets are common in Asia as places where locals can buy and sell fresh produce, including seafood, fruit and — in some cases — exotic species of animals, both live and slaughtered. They might add to the tapestry of life but they also created the conditions for infections to pass from animals to humans, especially when animals are stacked in cages on top of each other.

The WHO said in a statement that wet markets should not be allowed to sell illegal wildlife for food and that authorities should enforce food safety and hygiene regulations. But it said “wet markets and other food markets do not need to be closed down”.

How, though, can the WHO ensure China puts a halt to the trade in wildlife, especially given its lack of animal protection laws?

Q: Is China exporting traditional medicine remedies linked to exotic animals with the WHO’s support? 

A: Yes. As China specialist and emeritus professor at Swinburne University of Technology John Fitgerald wrote in Crikey last week, China’s president Xi Jinping is a champion of traditional chinese medicine which uses ingredients drawn from exotic animals such as pangolins which are found in wet markets:

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a significant and growing source of revenue for China … A thriving and growing international consumer market for pangolin meat and scales, rhinoceros horns, leopard bones, tiger plasters, black bear bile, donkey hide, and kangaroo penises is a predictable outcome of the grandiose repackaging and political marketing of TCM as a global equivalent to evidence-based medicine in Xi Jinping’s New Era of global leadership.

According to Fitgerald, in May 2019, the WHO’s governing body, the World Health Assembly, duly agreed to include a chapter on traditional medicines in its guide to acceptable global health practice.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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