Ahead of WHO’s virtual meet, some real pressure on Tedros. And a complication
The World Health Organisation on Monday told member states that it will soon start sending out formal invites for the truncated version of its annual meet later this month.
The World Health Assembly’s virtual meet comes at a time the global health body chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is at the centre of a huge row over its initial response to the outbreak of coronavirus disease in China’s Wuhan.
WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been accused by the United States of helping China play down the disease in the early stages.
Last month, Donald Trump declared that the US would hold back $ 400 million funding to the Geneva-headquartered WHO. A fortnight later, the US Director of National Intelligence issued a rare statement announcing a review of intercepted communications and other data to determine whether China, and possibly the WHO, concealed information about coronavirus.
Diplomats in Washington and Geneva suggest that the WHO meet might eventually be a staid affair because it would have a very limited agenda. It is not clear if there would be an opportunity to discuss the impact of the United States’ suspension of funding on the global health body’s projects since the meeting of the Programme, Budget and Administration committee has been indefinitely deferred.
But diplomats insist the effort to mount pressure on Tedros, who still has one more year to go, would continue to mount.
The Ethopian politician, who was the health minister between 2005 and 2012 before taking over as foreign minister for the next four years in the government then run by his party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front, has a doctoral degree in community health.
The WHO chief already has letters of support issued by the Non-Aligned Movement and the African Union leadership, a signal that he wasn’t willing to stand down.
Neither is the United States.
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has continued to pile pressure on China on Sunday, insisting that there was “enormous evidence” to show that the coronavirus outbreak began in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
That renewed offensive spooked investors who saw signs of a flare-up in US-China tensions and contributed to southeast Asian stocks slipping on Monday.
To be sure, the US decision to hold back money committed to the WHO has been criticised by many countries. But it has put the focus back on the initial response by China, and by default, the chief of WHO that calls itself the “global guardian of public health”.
Tedros’ praise for China fuels criticism
Some of the criticism aimed at Tedros is powered by his statements too. Like the one made two days after a closed-door meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on 28 January.
On 30 January, Tedros told the world that China is “setting a new standard for outbreak control”. A few hours after his effusive praise, the WHO declared the disease that may have originated from one wet market in China’s Wuhan a Public Health Emergency of International Concern for the world.
Three months later, the disease, according to news agency AFP, has killed over 245,000 people, infected 3.4 million, forced half of humanity to live under some form of lockdown and pushed the global economy towards its worst downturn since the Great Depression.
Complication over Taiwan
Long before the Tedros-led World Health Organisation begins the annual meet, it has found itself in another bit of a complication, also involving China and the United States.
The self-ruled island, which Beijing considers a wayward province awaiting reunification, has been excluded from WHO membership due to objections from China. Taiwan has attended the assembly as an observer from 2009-2016 when Taipei-Beijing relations warmed, but China blocked further participation after the election of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who China views as a separatist. Taipei rejects that stand and insists that its exclusion creates a glaring gap in the global fight against the coronavirus.
Taiwan has reported far fewer cases of the new coronavirus than many of its neighbours, due to early and effective detection and prevention work.
The United States has already supported Taiwan’s participation at the assembly as an observer calling its exclusion an “affront” to UN principles, provoking a sharp outburst by the Chinese foreign ministry which expressed “strong outrage and firm opposition”.