Coronavirus: Trump finds a scapegoat in WHO

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After blaming coronavirus as democrats’ new hoax, and calling the microbe as “China virus”, WHO has now become Mr. Trump’s latest scapegoat for all the failures of his administration in containing the spread.

After blaming the Democrats for investing a ‘hoax’ in the form of novel coronavirus, and pointing fingers at China by calling the SARS-CoV-2 virus a ‘China virus,’ U.S. President Donald Trump has found a new scapegoat — the World Health Organization (WHO). Mr. Trump has, of late, blamed the global health body for the failures of his own administration in containing the spread of COVID-19.

Mr. Trump tweeted on April 7: “The WHO really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China-centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?.” And, during a briefing, he threatened to withhold funding to the WHO, accusing it for not being aggressive enough in containing the spread.

Without a doubt

There is no doubt that concerted efforts by China in downplaying the magnitude and severity of the outbreak in Wuhan city for over a month, starting mid-December 2019, led to the spread of the virus within and outside China. The cover-up continued even after it alerted the WHO on December 31 and despite knowing the novel nature of the virus on January 9 thus allowing the microbe to spread freely. And  contrary to claims made by China, human-to-human transmission had been occurring since mid-December 2019, as a March 26 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) points out;  Beijing confirmed it only on January 20.

By the time Wuhan and other cities were shut down on January 23, locking in over 50 million people, about five million had already fanned out from Wuhan to the rest of China and outside, thus carrying the virus thousands of km away from the epicentre. Thailand and Japan reported their first cases in mid-January, and the U.S. on January 20.

Downplaying the outbreak

However, two days later, President Trump brushed aside any concerns about the spread saying, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.” On January 25 Mr. Trump even commended China, telling that Beijing was “working very hard to contain the coronavirus and the United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency”. He kept downplaying the risk in January and February despite being cautioned by intelligence agencies and even as the U.S. closed its borders in early-February to all foreign visitors who had recently been in China. Even on March 15, he continued to maintain that the U.S. has “tremendous control over” the virus when the number of cases was 3,000.

One may fault the WHO for not calling it a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) during its first meeting on January 22-23, and for the delay in calling the outbreak a pandemic. Such delays in announcing PHEIC have been seen even earlier, as in the case of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. But since the last week of January, the global body has been urging all member states to contain the spread through aggressive testing, contact tracing and quarantining.

Shutting down borders

Mr. Trump has also taken credit for rejecting WHO’s advice on keeping borders open to China. However, the truth is that shutting down borders goes against the grain of the International Health Regulations, which were adopted by the 58th World Health Assembly in May 2005. The Regulations, binding on all member states, provide norms for public health response to international spread of a disease while also “avoiding unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.”

The WHO, be it in announcing H1N1 as a pandemic in 2009 or declaring Ebola and Zika as PHEIC, has always maintained that there should be no travel or trade restrictions on communities or countries. Its recommendation was no different when it called COVID-19 a public health emergency.

To be frank, the WHO had failed to persuade China to be more transparent, especially till January 20, when it maintained radio silence on critical information such as the number of cases, deaths, spread of the virus and human-to-human transmission. But the WHO is only an advisory and not a regulatory body and it would be naïve to fault it for China or any other country not being transparent.

Published in The Hindu on April 10, 2020