President Trump has announced the United States will pause funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) to review the organization’s role in handling the COVID-19 outbreak. He’s right to do so. Here’s why.
The World Health Organization exists, at least on paper, to address global health challenges precisely like the one we are currently facing. Except here’s the problem: they utterly failed at identifying the disease early, alerting the world to the global threat, and in doing anything to stop it.
In fact, their reluctance to challenge Chinese authoritarianism actually made the situation worse. But what can you expect from an organization that has been failing at its primary mission—and is rife with corruption—for years?
WHO’s Failure to Identify and Respond to COVID-19
In every possible way, the WHO failed to track, identify, and prepare for COVID-19, despite ample opportunity and evidence. They were helped along by the duplicity and outright lies of the Chinese government, whose false claims the WHO took at face value.
Beijing informed the WHO about “pneumonia of unknown cause” on December 31, three weeks after doctors started noticing cases. According to the Wall Street Journal, China’s own doctors suspected it was highly contagious among humans—and at least one WHO doctor said the organization suspected the same.
Taiwan’s government—which has handled the COVID-19 outbreak remarkably well, considering their proximity to the virus’ ground zero—also warned the WHO that the virus was contagious among humans in late December.
Reports indicate that the Chinese government knew, too, but chose to destroy the evidence, rather than report it. An internal memo leaked out of China to the Associated Press shows that by January 14, the Chinese government internally acknowledged “that human-to-human transmission is possible.” The memo goes on, “With the coming of the Spring Festival, many people will be traveling, and the risk of transmission and spread is high. All localities must prepare for and respond to a pandemic.”
Yet, on January 15, Li Qun, the head of the China CDC’s emergency center, went on Chinese state television and said the opposite: “the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low.”
All along, the WHO accepted the Chinese lies unquestioningly. Despite warnings from Taiwan, reports from Chinese doctors and, apparently, the suspicions of WHO’s own doctors, WHO accepted the Wuhan branch of the Chinese National Health Commission’s claim that they had “not found any obvious human-to-human transmission or infection of medical staff,” and that “the disease is preventable and controllable.”
On January 12, the WHO put out a press release stating: “Based on the preliminary information from the Chinese investigation team, no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission and no health care worker infections have been reported.” A tweet from the WHO on January 14 reflected the same.
Yet according to reports, medical staff in China had begun quarantining from exposure on December 25. Dr. Li Wenliang, who was publicly reprimanded on January 2 for warning about the virus’ spread, was hospitalized with COVID-19 on January 12. He was dead by early February.
It wasn’t until January 20—six days after the Chinese government internally acknowledged the contagious behavior of the virus—that the Chinese confirmed the virus spreads between humans.
The WHO confirmed this during a field visit to Wuhan over January 20-21, and released findings that “human-to-human transmission is taking place in Wuhan.”
But on January 23, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, was still buying China’s line.
“At this time, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China,” he said, while insisting the virus did not present a global health emergency—even though, by then, cases of the virus and related deaths were already being reported in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States.
Beginning on January 20, the United States sent staff from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to China and Thailand and expanded airport screenings. By January 25, the U.S. officials were making plans to evacuate citizens from Wuhan, and the next day the CDC warned Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Hubei province. By January 27, that warning was extended to all of China.
But on January 28, the WHO still hadn’t declared COVID-19 a health emergency, much less a global pandemic. “We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak,” Tedros said in a press conference. He went on personally to credit Chinese President Xi for his efforts to tackle the crisis, and complimented the Chinese government’s transparency.
It wasn’t until January 30 that the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a public health emergency—stopping short of identifying it as a global pandemic.
As several countries, including the United States, implemented travel bans with China in an attempt to halt the virus’s spread, the WHO scoffed. Tedros said there was no need for travel or trade bans with China. “In fact, we oppose it,” he said. In the same press conference, he effusively praised China, saying the country “is actually setting a new standard in terms of outbreak response.” Either unwilling to acknowledge China’s obvious lies or haplessly ignorant of them, he went on, “We would have seen many more cases outside China by now, and probably deaths, if not for the government’s efforts.”
A study published in March indicated that if Chinese authorities had acted when they actually discovered the problem, the number of COVID-19 cases could have been reduced by 95 percent and its geographic spread limited.
On March 11, the WHO finally declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. But by then, the world was already burning.
The WHO Is Far From Credible
Uncritically kowtowing to Communist regimes and being unprepared in the face of global health threats, unfortunately, is expected behavior from the World Health Organization. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the WHO again was charged with “egregious failure” in preventing any serious containment of the viral spread, and in fact stole months of preparation from the rest of the world. A specialist panel convened to examine the WHO’s response called it “late, feeble and uncoordinated.”
A U.S. inspector general’s review at the Department of Health and Human Services found the WHO “did not declare the epidemic an emergency until the epidemic had significantly expanded in West Africa,” slowing the global response.
Tedros himself stands accused of covering up three cholera epidemics in his home country of Ethiopia and in Sudan. He allegedly failed to classify outbreaks of the disease properly in order to avoid embarrassing either country.
A group of American doctors blasted Tedros in 2017 for failing to investigate the outbreaks, calling his silence “reprehensible” and labeling him “fully complicit in the terrible suffering and dying that continues to spread.” Bradley Thayer and Lianchao Han recently opined that “Tedros is not fit to lead the WHO.”
In 2017, Tedros named Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe a “good-will ambassador” to the WHO, saying he was “honored” to be joined by Mugabe, and hoped Mugabe could use the role “to influence his peers in the region.” Human rights groups called the appointment “a sick joke” and said the move “embarrasses WHO and Dr. Tedros.” Mugabe is accused of overseeing the deaths of at least 20,000 of his countrymen.
The WHO itself has also been the subject of criticism for how they spend their $2 billion annual budget. In 2017 internal documents revealed the organization spent $200 million on luxury travel—far more than it spent combating AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. In 2019, a congressional report alleged that the WHO was complicit in colluding with Purdue Pharma, the maker of oxycontin, to boost international opioid sales and profits.
The Coming Reckoning
Trump’s announcement that he is reviewing the several hundred million dollars the United States provides to the WHO has been met with derision from Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called it “dangerous and illegal.”
It’s not illegal. Congress provides money for “international organizations,” not the WHO specifically, and most of the money is provided by the United States voluntarily, at the agency level. That funding can now be disbursed to other world health organizations that actually do their jobs. Moreover, the assessed dues—what the WHO bills each country—are not required to be paid. We have no treaty with the WHO.
When America recovers from COVID-19—which it will—there must be a reckoning with the policies that left us woefully unprepared as well as vulnerable. Our relationship with China, and with WHO, are two key areas that must come under rigorous review. The former made the world sick. The latter did nothing to stop it.