Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Mar 31, 2020
#Covid19: China colonizing public health with WHO’s help? Chitra Subramaniam was part of Dr. Brundtland's campaign staff and worked with her at the WHO. She also voluntarily supported Dr. Nabarro's campaign
In 2017, India rallied global support for Ethiopia’s unremarkable politician Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus (referred to as Tedros) to lead the World Health Organisation. Tedros was backed by China and he won. While China did not require India to help Tedros win, it wanted India’s face as the world’s largest democracy on Tedros’ side. The WHO has been ably assisting China in a global cover-up of the pandemic that originated in Wuhan in late 2019 and expects India to lead the world in the fight against Covid19. “We need to find all the cases first to find out where the virus is. When the outbreak becomes large, we need to understand where the outbreak is and where the cases are surging…India is a very populous country and the future of this virus will be considered in a very highly and densely populated country,” said Michael J Ryan of the WHO. He praised India’s work in eradicating small pox and polio, adding, “…so India has tremendous capacity…it is exceptionally important that countries like India show the way to the world as they have done before.” We can only presume he was not being facetious. As India orders 10,000 ventilators from China, a more serious question is: Given what we now know about China and the pandemic, is it wise for the WHO office in New Delhi to even participate in the high-level committee set up by India? Additionally, other experts in the committee have seen close links with the WHO. Data gathering is the other side of surveillance. Is it time to declare conflict of interest and transparency at home while seeking it internationally? The WHO knows India has a double burden of disease. Experts in Geneva say Covid19 in India could be worse than Europe, possibly spreading over time. How is India supposed to lead when mighty powers are struggling? India’s only option is to build local capacity while trying to contain the outbreak. This means more ‘Covid19-ready at once’ facilities including hospitals and community health systems coming up on a war footing. Lockdowns could extend, hurting businesses, but there are huge global opportunities to shift supply chains to India. Countries across the European Union (EU) have adopted different strategies. India where health is a state subject must do the same. The lockdown will not hurt all states equally as their public health profile and resources vary. When calm returns will the world be more protectionist? Will the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO), the world’s free trade police with teeth be China’s next battleground? As the pandemic spreads like wildfire in North America this question is critical. As are other questions beginning with whether the WHO, a global standard setting organization with no operational role, should have the power to declare an international health emergency that affects all aspects of life globally, including cross-border trade? Covid19 is one of the democratic world’s biggest intelligence failures as China spins the pandemic, its new geopolitical weapon, as charity. China is already one of the world’s strongest military and economic powers. To that, it has added dominance in the humanitarian field by a public health colonization of the world. From shortage of coffins and morgues to masks, gloves, ventilators, doctors, nurses, food, water and transport, the pandemic has catapulted China as the world’s savior. One narrative possibly pushed by Beijing, with WHO talking heads spreading it, is that the time for ‘blame’ is not now as all forces must unite to fight the war against the pandemic. Welcome to version 2.0 of the World War II logic of the Allies for whom it was more important to defeat Germany’s Adolf Hitler than preventing millions of Jews from perishing. Was India gamed into believing it would gain from supporting Tedros whose disturbing record on health and human rights is well documented? New Delhi’s reasoning then was Tedros, the first possible African WHO leader “is one of us”, unlike the two other finalists for the job, Dr David Nabarro from the United Kingdom (UK) and Pakistan’s Dr Sania Nishtar. While WHO elections rarely make news, Tedros’ in 2017 did. Geneva police heightened around the WHO, taking additional precautions- A situation that WHO election had never seen before. Fear and awe of China was palpable. Chinese investments in Africa are massive. Money talks, wealth whispers and Chinese whispers voted en masse for Tedros, as did central and South America. Pakistan, a distraction swiftly fell in line and western countries complied. A WHO election was not worth a fight with China they said. The dye was cast. Tedros’s vision for WHO was to prove the impossible is possible. It is likely he did not know what he was getting into. He is known to be distracted, even disinterested and happily distributes pins and umbrellas while scientists are speaking. The same cannot be said of his talking heads, now including former opponent David Nabarro and Canada’s Bruce Aylward, who hung up on a journalist raising questions about Taiwan. China has lied to the world about the situation in Wuhan in November 2019, dismissing concerns about rising hospitalizations from a new form of pneumonia. The cover up has left a track of disease and death, as there was increased Chinese travel during the Lunar Year. The whistleblower, a doctor, was silenced and died in his line of duty. China apologized to his family, not to the world. The WHO is silent. Calls to Tedros to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) surfaced in early January 2020. Ignoring them, he attended Davos in mid January when the WHO tweeted that “Preliminary investigations conducted by Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” Tedros went to China at the end of January to meet Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, where he noted that China was “setting new global standards for outbreak control and praised Beijing for its ‘openness in sharing information’. After his return from China, the WHO announced a PHEIC on January 30th 2020. Was Tedros waiting to get a Xi nod? Was it a pandemic in late January? “Meanwhile, Covid19 continued to exhibit the characteristics of a pandemic, spreading rapidly around the world. Not only did Tedros and his team fail to declare a Public Health Emergency, they urged the international community to not spread fear and stigma by imposing travel restrictions. The global health body even criticised health restrictions by the US as being excessive and unnecessary. Following the WHO’s advice, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control suggested that the probability of the virus infecting the EU was low, likely delaying more robust border control by European states,” wrote Samir Saran, President of ORF. People are connecting the dots. They have time to sit back and think. Will Chinese goods, services and clinical trials be dumped across the world? Countries with weak health systems, not China, are the problem said Tedros while declaring the PHEIC. That placed India in the crosshairs. What was unknown then was that Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, the US, the UK and Canada were also going to crumble. These are the democratic world’s most powerful countries (G7, G20). Most have massive trade relations with Beijing and the health urgency is helping China drive a divide between the world’s powerful democracies. The EU’s Greece had broken ranks earlier by blocking a European UN human rights resolution in Geneva that criticized China. More recently Italy, tragically among the worst hit by Covid19, cut G7 solidarity by moving in which China. It is time to call out WHO’s dangerous double speak and toothless advocacy. An inkling of this came when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing the G20 urged the leaders to “…strengthen and reform inter-governmental organizations like the WHO and work together to reduce economic hardships resulting from Covid19, particularly for the economically weak.” In 2016 German Chancellor Angela Merkel had pulled up the WHO for reacting late to the Ebola crisis that killed 11,000 people in West Africa. The WHO was the only international organization having universal political legitimacy on global health, she had said, calling for reforms. Former Norwegian Prime Minister and WHO’s first woman DG (1998-2013), Gro Harlem Brundtland has also pushed for reforms. “I see our role as being the moral voice and technical leader in improving the health of the people of the world,” she said, alerting the world to the ethical dimensions of the job. In her one term period, she had given the world its first treat entirely devoted to public health: the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Transparency and accountability is important for the impossible to become possible. War chests are called thus for a reason and all eyes are peeled on the WHO. It has proposed to raise $675 million to help protect States with weaker health systems. The WHO has created a Solidarity Fund to accept donations from individuals, a first in its history. This will be a space to watch. While a case can be made for the world to reflect on capitalism and neo-liberalism, a hegemonic China is not the answer.  Questions will continue to wash up around the WHO. Why is the keeper of international public health conscience and morality happy to cover up for China?
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.