Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus OMS (La Presse)

The Many Missteps of the WHO

The most acute phase of the pandemic appears to be ending. Countries — or, at the very least, provinces, states and regions— are coming out of lockdown. Many nations are reporting fewer new infections, and economies around the world are slowly being revived.

The WHO’s Problems are Far From Over

But, for the World Health Organisation, there are further troubles on the horizon. The organisation will doubtlessly be a major subject of the oncoming investigation into the global handling of the pandemic, which, at the time of writing, has the backing of 122 countries, and includes the European Union, African Group, the UK, Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The WHO will likely need to answer whether it acted quickly enough, and whether it was too soft on China in the early stages of the outbreak.

The proposal for the investigation is said to be a watered down version of its initial draft. This is likely due to a fear of how China will react: indeed, the proposal did not even mention the country where the pandemic started, and whose authoritarian suppression media and whistleblowers in the country likely made it more difficult for the rest of the world to respond. China had already threatened Australia — which has led the initiative — with serious sanctions.

The WHO, of course, can’t strong-arm the investigation the way that China has done (and will likely attempt to do again). And there is a long list of things it, and especially its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, will need to answer for: most notably, its mishandling of the situation when the virus first appeared.

Questions Surrounding the WHO’s Reaction to COVID-19

Take, for example, something the WHO tweeted out in mid-January. It said: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.” The same statement was roughly reproduced by the Chinese health services in Wuhan. We now know that there was better information available at the time, and that the Chinese government in particular was aware that such transmission was possible, if not certain.

As a result of taking China’s word at face value, the WHO dragged their feet in declaring it a global health emergency, which affected the global response. And now there are those – the US senior security advisor, John Bolton, among them — who are alleging a cover-up between the WHO and China

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

There is no hard evidence to support these theories of China-WHO foul play. Still, there are many who are concerned that Adhanom was too sympathetic with China and that this muddied his — and the organisation’s — communications.

The issue around faulty communication has since not been resolved. Take for example last weekend, the WHO tweeted out that: “There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from #COVID19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.” They were responding to the discussion around “immunity passports” — the idea that governments could grant special documents to citizens who test positive for COVID-19 antibodies, allowing them to move about freely. The WHO warned this was premature, since “no study has evaluated whether the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 confers immunity to subsequent infection by this virus in humans.”

This misses vital context. There is currently no evidence of immunity, but scientists have good reason to expect people who have recovered from COVID-19 to have some immunity to the virus, as that is the case with many other viruses.

The sloppy phrasing had an enormous impact. Major news organisations like Bloomberg News, for example, reported the story the headlines ‘WHO Warns You May Catch Coronavirus More Than Once”: a total misrepresentation the facts.

Partly revealing of the difficulties scientists have when communicating with a laymen audience, it was nevertheless a serious oversight, and fosters an atmosphere of misinformation which affects how people think, feel and act during the pandemic.

The WHO’s many missteps during the pandemic have led to widespread calls for scrutiny. There are those already predicting it will need tremendous reform after the pandemic and the WHO’s relationship with China will likely be of central concern going forward.