COVID-19: Denying Responsibility, While Blaming China and WHO, By Simbo Olorunfemi
There is little doubt that in some parts of the world, there is an unwillingness to take responsibility; there has to be a fall-guy. While countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Germany and even Nigeria picked themselves up and came up with a containment strategy, others have been more interested in finding who to blame.
As one would expect, there is a whole lot of blame going round now as the World grapples with the containment of the novel COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought the world to its knees. Of late, a lot of the blame is being hauled in the direction of China and the World Health Organisation, with President Trump announcing a suspension of the United States’ contribution to the body, put at $453 million in fiscal year 2019 – a move described by many as petty and dangerous.
It is not out of place that much of the blame and demonisation of both China and WHO, even if ignorant, is coming from America. It is largely about politics, about the presidential election coming up in the U.S. in November. What is disturbing is that some of our people are simply parroting these lines about China and WHO without a proper grasp of the facts or context. Many, in fact, neither understand what COVID-19 is nor can they properly place WHO in the scheme of things or how it functions.
Some are like Trump’s senior advisor, Kellyane Conway, who thought the disease is called COVID-19 because this is its 19th occurrence, which, in her words, should have made WHO better prepared. For instance, some blame the World Health Organisation for not shutting China’s borders. Some blame WHO for not declaring the coronavirus a global pandemic early in the day. Some repeat the accusation that WHO was in bed with China, simply rehashing information from China, rather than send in its own team for verification. Some have cited a supposed Taiwanese e-mail to WHO in December, which they claim alerted the Organisation of the human to human transmission of the virus, long before that was eventually acknowledged. Some allege that China deliberately continued to allow people travel freely, even when the virulent nature of the disease had been established.
Of course, there is plenty of blame to go round. But the truth is that in spite of the predictions over the years that a global pandemic was in the wings, no one was really prepared for it, in spite of the many warnings. In the “Annual Report on Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies” released by its Global Preparedness Monitoring Board in September 2019, WHO warned that “the world is at acute risk of devastating regional or global disease epidemics or pandemics that not only cause loss of life but upend economies and create social chaos.”
It warned about the lack of preparedness: “The world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic. The 1918 global influenza pandemic sickened one third of the world population and killed as many as 50 million people – 2.8% of the total population. If a similar contagion occurred today with a population four times larger and travel times anywhere in the world less than 36 hours, 50-80 million people could perish. In addition to tragic levels of mortality, such a pandemic could cause panic, destabilize national security and seriously impact the global economy and trade.”
Contrary to some assumptions underlying the accusations hauled in the direction of China, especially for lack of transparency, or as they say, for not letting others know early enough, there is not much outside of conjectures to suggest that. Of course, everyone knows that the Chinese society is a much more regimented and closed one than many others, but in most countries of the world, a public health emergency of the type that emanated from Wuhan in November/December would definitely be of grave concern with borderline security implications anywhere in the world. Every country would proceed with some measure of caution, especially if the source and characteristics of the disease is unknown, until it has been able to place its finger on what is going on. There is little in support of the argument that China stepped outside such expectation in the management of this strain of the coronavirus, deemed novel, for obvious reasons that it has not been previously identified in humans.
As we had previously argued, “a review of the timeline of the outbreak leaves one wondering about the basis of much of the allegations against China. What started as a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause towards the middle of December was declared a public health emergency by the end of the month, with the world Health Organisation having been notified. A novel coronavirus was isolated by the China Centre for Disease Control (CDC) on January 7 and with the pathogen identified, full genome sequences of the new virus were immediately shared with the WHO and the international community. The first case of COVID-19 was detected on January 13 and a set of nucleic acid primers and probes for PCR detection for COVID-19 were released on January 21, which makes much of what is being passed around as deliberate secrecy on the part of China difficult to understand.”
The World Health Organisation might not have declared a global pandemic until March 11, but it had on January 30 declared coronavirus a global emergency, that being “an extraordinary event that constitutes a risk to other countries requiring a coordinated international response.” At that time, there were over 200 deaths yet and there were fewer than 100 cases outside China, with only eight cases of human to human transmission reported.
For those who argue that China did not respond early enough to stop people from travelling, that argument won’t hold up in the face of the “unprecedented quarantine measures” which China put up which some even saw then as a gross violation of human rights, but which has now been replicated in different forms in other parts of the world, even by the most libertarian countries. By January 23, Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and its neighbour, Huanggang, with 6 million people, had been completely shut down, with all air and rail travel in and out of the cities suspended. Other cities were to follow suit, as China gradually shut down, as the world watched and wondered, unfortunately failing to take note.
For those who accuse the World Health Organisation of not speedily declaring a ‘global pandemic’, they just might not be conversant with the meaning of the word. Britannica defines a pandemic as “an outbreak of infectious disease that occurs over a wide geographical area and that is of high prevalence. A pandemic generally affects a significant proportion of the world’s population, usually over the course of several months.”
Even for those who are, they might not know that the word, ‘pandemic’ had ceased to carry the legal significance they might have invested in it, as it had become just a descriptive term, as WHO no longer has a category for the declaration of a pandemic, except for influenza. As we should expect, there are guiding protocols to such declarations. It cannot be a whimsical thing. For whatever it is worth, one would not expect WHO to adopt that descriptive usage of the word unless it is indeed a pandemic, as defined.
The World Health Organisation might not have declared a global pandemic until March 11, but it had on January 30 declared coronavirus a global emergency, that being “an extraordinary event that constitutes a risk to other countries requiring a coordinated international response.” At that time, there were over 200 deaths yet and there were fewer than 100 cases outside China, with only eight cases of human to human transmission reported. Yet, the alarm from the World Health Organisation, which the world needed to pay heed to had gone out. On February 24, the Organisation urged the world to prepare for a “possible pandemic” and on February 28, she upgraded the global risk to its highest level, even when it said it was yet to “see evidence as yet that virus is spreading freely in the communities.”
Indeed, it is with respect to the length of time it took before the World Health Organisation accepted that there was indeed human to human transmission of the virus that many critics have built their thesis of conspiracy between the organisation and China on, alleging manipulation and cover-up. But that is easy to do, with the benefit of hindsight, as some of these people walk back with the aid of a timeline situated outside of the context in which the world walked into this. On the face of the evidence available, no one definitely knew about the world was dealing with until late. Even now, while COVID-19 has been established as a zoonotic virus, with phylogenetics analyses undertaken alongside available full genome sequences suggesting bats as the reservoir of the COVID-19 virus, reports are that the intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified. Till date, though experts have dismissed the claim of genetic engineering, with one of them, Dr. Trevor Bedford, telling Financial Times that the mutations in the virus “are completely consistent with natural revolution,” the source of the pathogen is still being disputed outside the scientific realm, with the issue already politicised.
It is unclear what those who criticise the World Health Organisation for not speedily accepting that there was human to human transmission expect of the organisation. They cite WHO’s position as at January 14 that preliminary investigations by the Chinese authorities have found NO CLEAR EVIDENCE of human to human transmission of the novel coronavirus, as if they were expecting WHO to make a declaration without evidence to back it up. Or is to reinforce the argument that WHO relied on a report by the Chinese, as it would do in such case in any part of the world? Or could it be that they have forgotten, as they conveniently walk back now, that the novel coronavirus was only isolated by the China Centre for Disease Control (CDC) on January 7, and that shortly after the pathogen was identified, the full genome sequences of the new virus were shared with the WHO and the international community? On January 21, WHO affirmed that there was clear information of some human to human transmission and further to that, that “there may now be sustained human to human transmission. But more information and analysis are needed on this new virus to understand the full extent…”
Some have cited a December 2019 e-mail from Taiwan to the World Health Organisation, supposedly detailing how COVID-19 was spreading from animal to human. But nothing in that e-mail, which only sought from clarification and more information with respect to reported “atypical pneumonia cases” was, of course, a source of worry then.
In spite of the alerts before the onset of the pandemic, the alarm by the Joint Mission had warned, even as at the end of February, that “much of the global community is not yet ready, in mindset and materially, to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19 in China”, not much changed in many parts of the World, with some of the leaders now crying wolf finding time to play golf, while talking down the disease…
Apparently, what the world was dealing with was a novelty, which everyone involved was carefully walking its way. Even, President Trump, the most strident critic of China and the World Health Organisation, was until the tables turned with his country’s lack of preparedness catching up with it, had only commendation for China and WHO. On February 10, he had this to say: “China is very professionally run in the sense that they have everything under control….we just sent some of our best people over there, World Health Organisation and a lot of them are composed of our people.” Indeed, the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019, which was in China on a two-week mission consisted of 25 national and international experts from Nigeria and other countries, with the United States of America represented by two of its top experts.
There is simply no way the argument that China under-reported or manipulated data, with some even telling us that as many as 20 million people died of the disease in China, can vitiate the point that what we are dealing with is an apparent lack of preparedness in many parts of the world, in the face of warnings by WHO and the opportunity to learn from the experience in China. It was simply a case of countries either refusing or neglecting to do what was called for under the circumstance, in spite of a series of warnings by the World Health Organisation, which, contrary to some assumptions, only functions in an advisory capacity as it lacks an enforcement machinery.
In spite of the alerts before the onset of the pandemic, the alarm by the Joint Mission had warned, even as at the end of February, that “much of the global community is not yet ready, in mindset and materially, to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19 in China”, not much changed in many parts of the World, with some of the leaders now crying wolf finding time to play golf, while talking down the disease as something that will disappear by some miracle within weeks. As at March 6, the World Health Organisation was still crying out that “a long list of countries” were not showing the level of commitment needed “to match the level of the threat we all face”, calling for “aggressive preparedness”, while warning that “… this epidemic is a threat for every country, rich and poor”.
Legitimate gaps can definitely be found in the response of the World Health Organisation for which one can still argue against, with its position on travel restriction being one readily cited. But it is also the case that its long-standing policy that while travel restrictions might delay the spread and peak of pandemic, it is “largely ineffective and sometimes counterproductive” is backed by many studies, as travel restrictions have not been found to have any impact, where put in place.
While one wonders what the outcome might be if a study is conducted on the impact in the management of COVID-19, preliminary findings in the U.S. lean towards the position by WHO. Even with the much-touted Trump travel ban, cited by him as having curtailed the importation of the disease, it was found that nearly 40,000 people still came in from China through direct flights even after the so-called ban, which in reality was only a restriction. But then, genomic analyses of the early cases in U.S. suggest that they were from mostly from people who came in from Europe after the supposed ban placed on China.
There is little doubt that in some parts of the world, there is an unwillingness to take responsibility; there has to be a fall-guy. While countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Germany and even Nigeria picked themselves up and came up with a containment strategy, others have been more interested in finding who to blame. While some of our people are busy blaming 5G, Bill and Melinda Gates and whoever catches their fancy, fabricating and rehashing all shades of conspiracy theories, the man on the other side has its gaze on China and the World Health Organisation to cover up for his lapses. Yes, let’s blame China. Let’s blame the World Health Organisation. Let’s echo the Boss, even if his tunes are discordant.