World Health Organization: It's worse than we think

Walter Duranty, the New York Times's Moscow correspondent from 1922 to 1936, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his Russian reporting in the early 1930s. Stalin showered him with amenities — cars, luxury apartments, and mistresses — as well as access. In return, Duranty treated Stalin’s Russia with velvet gloves.

In the midst of the 1931-1932 famine that killed millions in Ukraine, one of Duranty’s dispatches declared that "Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda." And, he wrote further: "Weaklings and despondents at home may groan under the burden, but the youth and strength of the Russian people is essentially at one with the Kremlin's program."

(Decades later, in 1990, the New York Times acknowledged in a signed editorial that Duranty's famine coverage was "some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper." The Pulitzer board declined to revoke the award, however.)

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This year, an international delegation of the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO) visited China from Feb. 16 to Feb. 24 to report on the coronavirus that, by that time, had spread beyond China. Only three weeks earlier, the WHO had finally conceded human-to-human transmission of the virus.

The WHO's report did not address China’s delays, lack of transparency or harsh treatment of Wuhan physician-whistleblowers. Instead, the delegation produced a political document of fawning praise for China.

The WHO representatives marveled at China’s “roll out of perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” As China gained experience, “a science and risk-based approach was taken to tailor implementation.”

The WHO commission was equally effusive in its praise of the “unusual and unprecedented speed of decision-making by top leaders” in China, as well as the “deep commitment of the Chinese people to collective action in the face of this common threat … The Chinese people have reacted to this outbreak with courage and conviction” as they “accepted and adhered to the starkest of containment measures.”

And how did the WHO commission confirm the enthusiasm of the Chinese people? In shades of Walter Duranty, they wrote: “Throughout an intensive 9 days of site visits across China, in frank discussions from the level of local community mobilizers and frontline health care providers to top scientists, Governors and Mayors, the Joint Mission was struck by the sincerity and dedication that each brings to this COVID-19 response.”

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I assume that the WHO commission failed to notice that in each “frank discussion” their conversation partners uniformly praised the wisdom of President Xi Jinping and expressed their appreciation of the Chinese Communist Party's enlightened leadership throughout this time of trouble.

The impressed WHO commissioners had kudos for China’s generous contribution to the world community, too. After all, China’s protective measures have “played a significant role in protecting the global community and creating a stronger first line of defense against international spread” despite the “great cost and sacrifice by China and its people, in both human and material terms.”

I imagine that the WHO team did not ask to speak with those whistleblowers who had been threatened or punished, those journalists who had disappeared, the ordinary people locked inside their apartments, or the dissidents confined in quarters cordoned off for COVID-19 positives.

They also did not ask why international health experts had not been allowed into Wuhan and why vital samples from the first patients were not forthcoming to the international medical community.

The WHO delegation appears to reflect a preference for authoritarian regimes, whose leaders can make "agile and aggressive" decisions in the name of their people who played no role in their selection.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor of economics at the University of Houston, Texas, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.