The WHO made mistakes, but it’s China that must be held accountable

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Last week, African leaders rallied to the defense of the World Health Organization’s Director General, former Health Minister of Ethiopia Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, after U.S. President Donald Trump criticized Tedros for his China-centric approach to the global coronavirus pandemic COVID-19.

“The WHO really blew it,” President Trump said, adding that he was considering withdrawing funding to the UN agency.

In a show of solidarity, Africa and Africans, stood with Tedros.

Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Moussa Faki Mahamat tweeted: “Surprised to learn of a campaign by the U.S. govt against WHO ‘s global leadership. The @AfricanUnion fully supports @WHO and @DrTedros. The focus should remain on collectively fighting #Covid19 as a united global community. The time for accountability will come.”

Heads of states across the continent echoed the AU’s sentiment: Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa and  Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who in retweeting Mahamat’s statement added: “Totally Agree, and asking this; Is it Dr.Tedros, WHO, China … under attack or all of them together? Let’s focus on the fight against this pandemic, whoever sh’d be held acc’ntable will come later and done properly. Save us too much politics Africa does not need it. Who does?”

I too totally agree with the AU chairperson: We need to focus on the fight against the pandemic — particularly so when Africa’s fragile health systems are at risk of collapse — and I believe that Trump’s decision to freeze funding to the WHO during the pandemic is a mistake.

But I respectfully disagree that answerability can wait for later.

China is seeking to rewrite the pandemic narrative. It is deleting files, silencing critics, and carrying out viral social media campaigns in an attempt to define accountability — and culpability — on its own terms, going as far as to suggest that the United States was responsible for unleashing the virus.

The stakes are huge. How this plays out will define whether the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is able to exploit the global pandemic to consolidate its power at home and abroad, or whether it faces a reckoning.

An act of blind trust and solidarity with the WHO director in response to Donald Trump’s attacks, however well intentioned, emboldens Beijing — it is a welcome diversion.

Axios compiled a timeline — from reporting in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the South China Morning Post — that shows China’s initial cover-up resulted in a three-week delay to contain the virus; a period of time that research suggests could have resulted in a 95 percent decrease in cases and would perhaps have averted the global pandemic.

Doctors in Wuhan first noticed the novel coronavirus in early December and began exchanging urgent warnings. By the end of the month, there were more than 250 cases in the Wuhan province, with more than one third of the patients having no history of visiting Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the virus is believed to have been first detected. 

It was only on Dec. 31, 2019, that China officially notified the WHO about cases of “unusual viral pneumonia,” but said that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission,” submitting that it was solely spreading from animals to humans. This was a criminal act of omission.  

The WHO, in the first of many missteps, tweeted out the Chinese falsehood: “Preliminary investigations by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel Coronavirus.”

China rejected repeated offers from the WHO for epidemic investigation assistance until late January. Notwithstanding that, Tedros pronounced, “we appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated.”

These compliments were offered at the same time Beijing was ordering Wuhan doctors to halt tests, destroy samples, and cover up reports. One doctor, was arrested and forced to confess his “illegal behavior.” He subsequently died of COVID-19 exposure.

“The WHO actually compounded Chinese authorities’ misinformation for a few weeks,” says Berkeley research scientist, Xiao Qiang. “This I find unforgivable.”

So no, it’s not about Trump, and it’s not about Tedros. It’s about accounting for what really happened in China and making sure it does not happen again.

It’s about calculating the real numbers of COVID-19 positives and fatalities, so we can fully understand what is bearing down upon us.

And it’s about the WHO considering the possibility that in its drive to deploy its scientific, medical, and public health capabilities to help China prevent, protect against, and respond to disease events, it yielded its objectivity.

The COVID-19 Pandemic will have a substantial economic impact on Sub-Saharan Africa. The U.N. projects the GDP growth will fall from 3.2 to 1.8 percent in 2020. Such a precipitous decline will push millions into poverty, create food insecurity, loss of critical services and increase the risk of instability and violence across the continent.

In the face of this threat to Africa, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, along with the G-20 nations, are seeking a consensus at the virtual Spring Meetings this week to provide emergency support, grant-based debt service relief of more than a half trillion US dollars, and potentially, long-term debt forgiveness. But China remains the question mark.

As one of Africa’s top State creditors, estimated to have lent US $138 billion, any comprehensive debt deal, including write-offs, will require Beijing to take a leading role and accept losses.

This is where African solidarity could materially matter — demanding a collective response, and denying China the opportunity to play one nation against the other.

Wuhan is the Chernobyl of our time.

Like other authoritarian governments that have come before, when faced with a national calamity, the Chinese Communist Party regime put self-preservation above the lives of its own citizens and of global health security. It owes a debt to society, and at a minimum, to those nations left most vulnerable in the coronavirus’ wake.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags China Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic Coronavirus response COVID-19 Donald Trump Global health Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Transparency Viruses WHO World Health Organization

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