In the past few weeks, countries outside China did not send adequate case reports to WHO in time, while media suffered an ‘infodemic.’ Instead of battling COVID-19, WHO and its chief were targeted.
Currently, the greatest virus outbreak concern is to avoid any possible emergence of secondary virus clusters.
Recently, this critical task has been complicated by misguided media coverage and attacks against WHO, China and people of Chinese descent rather than the virus.
Infodemic versus epidemic
Last Saturday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged global leaders to stop stigma and hate amid the virus outbreak. His comments in Munich followed reports that people of Asian descent have faced discrimination amid virus fears. “We will all learn lessons from this outbreak,” he added, “but now is not the time for reclamations or politicization.”
At the end of January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the ongoing virus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC). As WHO made clear, the PHEIC was not motivated by China, but the possible effects of the virus, if it would spread to countries with weaker healthcare systems.
At WHO, the concern was compounded when terms, such as “virus outbreak,” “epidemic” and “pandemic,” got blurred even in reputable international media. Tabloid hysteria contributed to ugly instances of xenophobia, even racism against people of Chinese and Asian descent, while leading to bullying in schools, colleges, even universities.
The misinformation on global scale compelled the WHO to declare the COVID-19 an ‘infodemic” on February 2. Since international media seemed to be shunning its responsibility to correct myths and rumors, WHO had to allocate some of its scarce resources to do the job.
Stunningly, it took until mid-February for some of the world’s largest technology companies – including Google, Amazon, and YouTube – to get together, when WHO hosted a Silicon Valley meeting to discuss how to tamp down on misinformation about the virus.
In the concurrent weeks, the struggle against COVID-19 has gone hand in hand with a battle against the WHO and its executives.
WHO and its chief were targeted
Since late January, almost 380,000 people have signed an online petition to the UN for the WHO chief to resign because he allegedly “solely believes” Chinese outbreak data. In contrast to allegations, WHO chief Dr. Tedros has initiated a review process to study the causes of the virus, while stressing adherence to WHO guidelines regarding pandemics.
The smear campaign is an ugly déjà vu. In 2017, Dr Tedros, a high-level Ethiopian health executive, succeeded Margaret Chan as the chief WHO. While he was considered highly qualified for the job and an innovative reformer in Ethiopia, his candidacy was attacked at the last eve of the WHO election, when odd stories surfaced about an alleged cover-up of cholera epidemics in Ethiopia. Reportedly, the allegations came from Lawrence Gostin, a US law professor who advised the rival UK candidate (and has recently resurfaced as a critic of China’s virus struggle).
In the UN, the African Union dismissed the allegations as an “unfounded and unverified defamation campaign.” Yet, once again, the old smear campaign stories have been recycled in media.
When attacks against Dr. Tedros went nowhere, international spotlight focused on WHO Infections Hazards Director Dr. Sylvia Briand when she stated in early February that “we are not in a pandemic.” Then she became a target for criticism.
To avoid political intrigues, WHO’s pandemic declaration requires strong evidence and relies on a tested six-stage classification.
The last pandemic was the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak (swine flu), which is estimated to have killed around 150,000 to 300,000 people around the world. In contrast, COVID019 has so far resulted in 4 deaths outside China, despite weeks of diffusion.
Slow to provide reports
In the early 2000s, China’s efforts to control SARS were criticized as the disease spread internationally before the global outbreak was subdued. A decade later, Chinese response to the Avian influenza (H7N9) was significantly faster, broadly praised and the disease did not spread widely. With COVID-19, as Dr Tedros has stated, China should be credited with identifying the virus in “record time,” sharing its genetic sequence quickly, and flagging potential international spread.
Yet, there is a strange discrepancy in the international coverage of the COVID-19. This coverage has systematically focused on China’s alleged conduct, while ignoring the actual conduct of many other influential WHO member states.
This discrepancy prevails even today, despite the news bomb of February 4, when WHO chief Tedros said that it was not China, but countries outside China that had proved slow in sharing complete information about cases.
WHO was particularly concerned about the fact that, even after almost a month of international crisis and global alert, it had received complete case reports for only 38% of the cases.
In other words, a whopping three of five member countries had failed to provide adequate information to WHO in a timely manner. Those reports were vital to the global organization so that it could assess the true international scope of the outbreak, while broadening and deepening containment efforts.
“I don’t think it’s because they lack capacity,” Dr Tedros stated pointedly about these WHO members. It would be ideal, he added, if WHO would receive the most up-to-date information, not just from China but the rest of the world.
It was only after Tedros’s public statement that some member states began to share data with WHO. Meanwhile, precious time had been lost.
Politicization of the outbreak
Even though these lost opportunities could result in potential secondary COVID-19 outbreaks outside China, international media has not yet asked the tough questions about the belated international cooperation outside China.
Instead of focusing on the need for international cooperation, international coverage has produced a series of headlines against the WHO. On February 5, a day after Dr Tedros had urged countries to provide complete case reports, Financial Times reported that the influential WHO emergency committee member and veteran professor John Mackenzie “hit out at Beijing’s ‘reprehensible’ response,” and “accused China of not reporting coronavirus cases fast enough.”
The charge was not publicly supported by other committee members, nor by WHO executives. Moreover, the FT neglected to mention that the highly qualified Mackenzie also serves in Australian government’s Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security, which plays a role in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific initiative aiming to contain China’s rise, and is the co-chair of a major NGO, whose key partners include Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which compete “against Chinese influence.”
The tone of international coverage, even in the reputable media, still hasn’t changed. On February 13, Wall Street Journal released a new front-page story, “WHO Criticized for Virus Response,” that broadened the WHO criticism. It relied in part on critical quotes by both Mackenzie and Lawrence Gostin, the China critic who had tried to undermine Tedros’s candidacy at WHO. Free media has a right to critical views, but not to the lack of relevant context. Like other interviewees, both were portrayed as independent, disinterested, neutral observers. Furthermore, all interviewees represented experts from the U.S. or its allies. Not a single major Chinese health expert was interviewed.
Recently, the pattern has been typical to even reputable international dailies. Such purposeful selectivity fosters an impression that legitimate expertise is limited mainly to the critics of WHO.
Throughout the ongoing virus outbreak, Dr Tedros has admirably sought to foster an international battle against COVID-19, while garnering funds against future epidemics. “The virus is a common enemy,” he says. “Let’s not play politics here.”
As the COVID-19 cases could exceed 100,000 in a week or two and global resources should be focused on avoiding secondary outbreak clusters outside China, it is the virus that international cooperation and coverage should attack – not the WHO.
This is a short version of a commentary that was published by The World Financial Review and The Manila Times on February 17, 2020.