HomeResearch PaperWHO and Pandemic Politics

WHO and Pandemic Politics

Author: Sakshi Oza
Research Coordinator, GCTC
Areas of interest: West Asia Studies, Indo Pacific Studies
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Novel coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-2), is liable for the havoc and wreck the globe is battling right now. This anonymous virus, gained attention worldwide due to its speed of transmission. After careful inspection the virus was identified to have been closely linked to bat coronavirus, pangolin coronavirus through natural interaction. December 2019, documented the very first case of coronavirus in Wuhan city of Hubei, in China. The symptoms for the disease were identified ranging between none to fatal and could be transmitted to other human beings by the means of cough, sneeze, breath and contaminated surfaces.
Wuhan became the hotspot for the disease and in no time it rapidly spread to other parts of the globe. Chinese authorities isolated the virus from the clustered cases and reported it to the World Health Organization (WHO) in January 2020.  The World Health Organization in the following days tweeted regarding the cluster of disease and made the report public. The report contained data about the number of cases and their clinical status; insights concerning the Wuhan national response measures; and WHO’s hazard evaluation and guidance on general public well being measures.  As borders were still not sealed, with the availability of international flights from Wuhan, people continued to travel which caused the virus to unknowingly disseminate   globally and by February 26th, 2020, coronavirus cases were confirmed in all continents. Travel restrictions were placed upon around 760 million people in China. Articulating growing alarm about increasing infections, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on 11 march 2020 that the worldwide coronavirus crisis was now a pandemic.  With the declaration of the pandemic being made public, countries imposed bans on social gatherings and restricted travel means. Curfews, stay at home orders, quarantines were implemented all around the globe and by April 2020, half of world population was under national lockdowns as citizens were ordered to stay at home by their respective national governments.
The discussions regarding the origin of the virus became an in-vogue topic which gathered a lot of attention, when Dr. Li Weng Yan, an ophthalmologist from China claimed the virus was actually formulated in a lab and used as a bioweapon by the Chinese authorities. She further went on to allege the Chinese authorities and WHO, knowing the human to human transmission of the virus earlier than it was made public. Although her claims were rejected by the scientific community, her publications and interviews sparked a fire. Soon several theories vis-à-vis the origin and outbreak of the virus started circulating on different social media platforms. Different narratives were being formed associated with the origin of coronavirus.
On 3 February 2020, the Wall Street Journal published an article commenting on Chinese government’s mismanagement of the Covid 19 crisis. The article titled “China is the real sick man of Asia” was shunned and aroused anger among the Chinese authorities and Chinese people as well. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) responded rapidly and condemned the author for their arrogance and bias, blaming the WSJ for being racially partial and requested a public apology. Chinese state owned media house Global Times, published an article of their own that scorned the WSJ for their actions. Around the same time, the U.S. State Division assigned five Chinese journalists as official government entities under the Foreign Missions Act, which implied that the journalists were subjected to upon similar limitations as the PRC government’s diplomatic outposts. In no time, Beijing responded by giving three WSJ writers a five-day notification to leave the country. The Trump administration imposed further constraints on Chinese journalists in the US, claiming such restrictions were aimed at continuance of the reciprocity. This marked the beginning of the blame game, Chinese MFA representative, Hua Chunying on her twitter handle stated that US has started the game which will be played just.
Counter-Narrative to the aforementioned school of thought, Chinese authorities blamed the US for the origin of the virus. Chinese MFA spokesperson Zhao Lijian made productive use of the issue in hand and tweeted substantiating the origin of the virus in US army lab and bought to Wuhan during the military world games which was strongly condemned and attracted severe criticism by the trump administration. Tipping the matter further, Former US president Donald Trump during one of the white house press conferences called the virus “Chinese virus” further indicating that the virus may have been manufactured in a lab. In April 2020, the US intelligence community stated that there were considerable doubts regarding China’s numbers on Covid-19 cases and deaths. Responding, Chinese media outlets targeted US Covid-19 statistics and stated that the authorities were softening the actual situation. In the following days, former US president Donald Trump publicly claimed of evidences which point China being responsible for the origination of coronavirus. Former US state secretary Mike Pompeo in an interview also asserted to possess significant proofs that coronavirus originated from a lab in Wuhan. The Chinese authorities were not so far behind, Chinese MFA spokesperson, on twitter questioned US’s response and hinted that they might be hiding relevant pieces of information regarding the origin of coronavirus.
The to and fro of accusations from US and China kept increasing day by day. Former US president Donald Trump continued to blame and target both China and WHO for their involvement in Covid 19 pandemic. He kept referring to the virus as “Chinese virus” at all public gatherings, conferences and meetings, reiterating the role of China and WHO in the pandemic. To make WHO accountable, Donald Trump also put hold onto the financial contributions and withdrew from the U.N health body.
The narratives were also being constructed among the public as well. As per the study conducted by Pew Research Centre, it was reported that the majority of masses in the US blamed China for the pandemic. According to a poll conducted by a Vancouver based polling company, Research co. it was found that the majority of Canadians wanted China to be held responsible for the pandemic situation and many suggesting harsh actions be implemented against the country. In a similar fashion poll conducted in Germany, majority held China responsible for the virus outbreak and tampering with Covid 19 cases statistics. Similar doubts were also raised by politicians in France and Britain. Bild, Germany’s largest tabloid media outlet put together a detailed invoice of 149 billion euros to be compensated by the Chinese authorities for the damages and the loss of lives due to Covid 19 pandemic. Chinese authority in retaliation termed this as an act of xenophobia and slammed the media outlet for publishing such an article. The outrage against China was still rising. The French foreign minister summoned the Chinese ambassador for publishing an outrageous article against health care workers in France. The UK was also reconsidering its relationship with China and doubting over allowing Chinese investments in nations 5G networks.
China has been working towards becoming a global hegemon and having a bigger voice in decision making processes in international institutes. Covid 19 situation has however put a halt to achieving this dream. For China, a lot is at stake, with its trillion dollar Belt and road initiative, Silk Road project, and Asian infrastructure investment bank. Due to growing outrage the leadership of Xi Jinping was under scrutiny. Untimely death of Dr. Li led to intensified anger among people on social media. People were demanding freedom for speech and an apology for the crisis. Constant blame from different parts of the globe tainted China’s reputation. China’s quest for emerging as a superpower was threatened due to mishandling of Covid 19 crisis within its own territory.
The Chinese, grasping the seriousness of the outrage all over the world decided to customise an understanding of their own by resorting to aggressive forms of diplomacy, censorship and offensive attacks. It started with president Xi issuing a direct order to state owned media outlets to publish articles and opinion pieces that emphasised on China’s response in combating the virus and to censor anything even slightly critical to China’s reputation. Within the first few weeks of the campaign the media houses were not allowed to ask Chinese authorities any questions regarding the source of this virus apart from highlighting  the poor handling of the coronavirus situation by the US and European nations. Chinese papers and broadcasters also emphasized domestic issues within US and how the American government was killing their own citizens by diverting the finances towards election campaigns.
The Chinese authorities decided to turn the tables on the topic of origin of coronavirus with Chinese spokesperson attacking America and stating that it was the American army which was responsible for the outbreak of the disease. When this argument did not hold up, a group of Chinese scientists claimed that the virus originated in India. They claimed that the virus was transferred from animals to humans via contaminated water in India during the summer of 2019. Not only US and India, China has pointed fingers at every country which was doing trade with Hubei province that includes Australia, Canada, Germany and Spain. Such claims were made without any scientific and empirical evidence. Further, the Chinese diplomats and MFA spokespersons have engaged in an absolute campaign of renunciations and misinformation. In every interview, they have maintained to proclaim that the virus was not originated in China and China’s speedy response and handling of the crises at home. Chinese authorities have also directed European leaders to steer clear of commenting on China’s involvement in Covid 19 crisis.
To further place China in a positive light, the authorities announced victory over Covid 19; no new infections were being reported and life was back to normal in the country. In other efforts, China began providing medical assistance and health care equipment to different countries. It also announced its financial aid to 82 countries, to WHO and the African Union. The Chinese government sent additional medical experts and training officers across the globe and donated millions of masks, gloves, testing kits and ventilators. China has also provided loans to different countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka to help them fight the coronavirus battle.
In order to spread their narration and to further save face, the Chinese authorities decided to showcase their side of the story onto the PRC’s embassy website. On the website of the embassy of People’s Republic of China in the kingdom of Netherlands, it is very clearly mentioned that China should not be blamed or held responsible for the outbreak and instead the countries should remain focused on improving their efforts to fight the disease and protect their people instead of pointing fingers. The very same publication also highlighted Chinese authorities’ response against the crises and their cooperation with WHO. This can be viewed as a subtle but unnecessary action by the Chinese authorities.
WHO and China
The preeminent global health institution, World Health Organization, for a couple of months was under international spotlight for its management and response towards Covid 19 pandemic and its relationship with China. WHO has been criticized by numerous health experts and political figures for not taking charge of the situation on time, further contributing to the escalation of the ongoing plight. The disease which was first detected in Wuhan city in December 2019 was not informed by the Chinese to the UN health agency and the information regarding human to human transmission was also suppressed.
In mid-January 2020, WHO announced as per preliminary investigation there was no evidence of human to human transmission of the disease, but in a week’s time the statement was reversed. Despite the severity of the situation, WHO opposed international travel bans and border restrictions. In late January of 2020, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with the Chinese president Xi and applauded the country’s response and efforts towards handling the pandemic situation. He further commended the country’s leadership for sharing information and cooperation with the health agency. It was only in February 2020, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus publicly berated countries for implementing such a policy.
WHO was also blamed for ignoring warnings by Taiwan about human to human transmissions in December 2019. All the evidence pointed that China did mishandle the virus situation in the early days. Beijing had knowledge about the seriousness of the disease prior to the official announcement and also allowed millions of citizens to travel within China and abroad till late January. As per the Chinese envoy to the UK, Chinese state authorities informed WHO about the virus outbreak on 31st December 2019 but as per WHO, they picked up the information regarding a new virus through the internet. Chinese authorities also rejected the proposal to allow any investigating bodies to come to China and investigate the source of the outbreak China was also silencing frontline doctors who were warning others of the new disease, pressurizing several doctors to sign confessions for spreading of misinformation along with forceful sudden disappearances. The experience of China and WHO is quite transparent of mismanagement and negligence towards Covid 19 crisis. With the absence of US contribution, China’s importance as a potential contributor to WHO and funding of projects such as “health silk road” remains vital for the UN health agency.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic loss of human lives  worldwide and presents an unmatched challenge to the world of work. As of Jul 22nd 2021, approximately 4,143,764 people have lost their lives to coronavirus. The economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic is disturbing. The lockdowns and travel restrictions caused millions to  lose their jobs and many small and big businesses had to shut down. Covid 19 recession is considered to be the worst since the great depression of 1929. Frontline health care workers were affected physically and mentally under stressful conditions for innumerable hours without proper protective equipment, jeopardizing their own lives for others. Domestic violence and sexual exploitation spiked as lockdowns were implemented. Due to loss of lives, loss of jobs and loneliness the mental health of citizens all across the globe deteriorated. People developed anxiety and suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and panic attacks. Thousands have died from hunger. It is agreed upon that in such difficult times it’s imperative that we keep our emotions aside and focus on taking charge of the pandemic situation but to take responsibility and accountability for others, there is no proper addressal to the affair. Responsibility for each life lost. Responsibility for economic strain on families. So far, there has been no investigation regarding WHO’s involvement or regarding its relationship with China.
WHO has publicly criticized those who dared to speak against China but has defended and praised China and its actions at every turn. While it is apparent that China did mishandle the Covid 19 situation what’s baffling is that apart from commenting on China’s mismanagement and involvement in Covid 19 situation, none of the major powers have taken any action against China so far. In fact, all of them continue to strengthen their military powers and boost the economy. This entire pandemic have become more political and the focus on finding out about the actual source of the virus has also been lost in a war of words. All the superpowers who have been reiterating the importance of multilateralism and a multilateral world have only played the blame game, rather than actually coming forward to collectively work and collaborate to defeat this global pandemic.
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