Trump, WHO chief’s face-off over Covid-19 could spark fireworks at annual event

US President Donald Trump has ratcheted up criticism of Beijing and the WHO over its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak
US President Donald Trump’s shrill attacks on China and the WHO come ahead of the World Health Assembly scheduled for May 18(Agencies)
US President Donald Trump’s shrill attacks on China and the WHO come ahead of the World Health Assembly scheduled for May 18(Agencies)
Updated on Apr 19, 2020 08:11 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByShishir Gupta

US President Donald Trump and his administration’s consistent attacks on the World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus have set up a face-off at the proposed annual meeting of the World Health Assembly on May 18.

Trump, who has long accused the Tedros-led WHO of playing into China’s hands over the coronavirus disease, this week suspended funding to the global health body. By then, the Ethopian microbiologist who was elected to lead the WHO in 2017 with support from Xi Jinping’s China, had already galvanised support from African and most Non-Aligned countries.

To be sure, diplomats based in Geneva where the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly take place told Hindustan Times that the three-hour long video conference would end up in an anodyne resolution calling for a global fight against the spread of Covid-19 with all member nations uploading their statements. Even the most hard-hit European countries and the UK have desisted from criticising the WHO director general at this point, saying this isn’t the time to play politics but fight the virus.

Also Read: Geostrategic paralysis in face of Covid-19 could open a role for India | Opinion

However, every representative of the 194-member body is expected to scrutinise the US statement as President Donald Trump has led the attack against Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, accusing him of playing into the hands of the Chinese government and downplaying the threat posed by the deadly virus that has claimed 157,000 lives worldwide.

President Trump on Sunday went a step ahead when he warned of consequences to the Xi Jinping regime if it was found that China had deliberately suppressed facts about the origin and spread of the virus that originated from Wuhan province.

The US charges against WHO were largely summed up by the Committee on Oversight and Reform of the US Congress, which in a letter on April 9 to Dr Ghebreyesus made it clear that the organisation was “no longer serving the needs of the world and instead taking its cues from China.”

Also Read: Reforming the World Health Organization | Opinion

While India has not formally taken a stand against Dr Ghebreyesus over its assessment that the focus should be Covid-19 and not WHO director general, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first to indirectly question the body during a G-20 meeting last month when he wondered if a 20th century body would be able to handle the new-age diseases.

The US position is in contrast to the stand taken by African Union and countries and Non-Aligned Movement. Dr Ghebreyesus hails from Ethiopia, which has been a member of the movement for nearly 40 years.

The US is unhappy that as late as January 14, 2020, the WHO denied that there was community transmission in Wuhan despite warnings of human-to-human transmission by a non member Taiwan the previous month.

The WHO, the Trump administration believes, was late to declare Covid-19 as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) January 30, 2020.

By this time the disease had infected almost 10,000 people. In fact, Dr Ghebreyesus congratulated the Chinese government for taking extraordinary measures to contain the outbreak.

The WHO, despite declaring Covid-19 a PHEIC and extensive evidence of transmission through travel, did not warn any country against travel, to or from China. Between December 31 and January 31, as many as 430,000 people flew on direct flights from China to the US.

Covid-19 was only declared a pandemic on March 11 after it had raced around the world, sickening nearly 120,000 people in 110 countries and killing close to 4,400.

However, much to the chagrin of Donald Trump and US lawmakers, WHO routinely praised China for its efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19 contrary to the accusations that Beijing had underreported the threat and gagged professionals such as doctors and journalists for speaking about the severity of the disease.

Even though the World Health Assembly in Geneva may end up in a very diluted outcome. diplomats expect that there would be increasing pressure on China to respond to criticism that it hasn’t been transparent enough about the disease and the WHO, for the steps that it should have taken.

At the UN Security Council meeting that belatedly discussed the pandemic last week, the US drove home the point by calling for “complete transparency” in the reporting of coronavirus data, a clear reference to China.

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