Government Agency

World Health Organization

Website:

https://www.who.int/

Location:

Geneva, Switzerland

Formation:

1948

Director General:

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Type:

Global health agency

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a global health policy agency operating under the United Nations. Established in 1945, the WHO had a largely positive reputation around the world for supporting public health efforts, but the organization has faced numerous criticisms during the COVID-19 pandemic for mishandling policy and being overly deferential toward the People’s Republic of China. After being its largest funder for decades, former President Donald Trump formally initiated the withdrawal of the United States from the WHO, but President Joe Biden cancelled the withdrawal.

Founding

In 1945, United Nations delegates from the Republic of China and Brazil proposed the establishment of a health agency under UN authority tasked with combatting global diseases. The following year, all 51 members of the UN signed an agreement to establish the agency. In 1948, enough members had ratified the terms and structure to formally establish the World Health Organization. [1]

COVID-19 Pandemic

The World Health Organization has faced many criticisms for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, from its scientific evaluations to its politics. According to Foreign Policy, the WHO permanently damaged its once spotless reputation due to its mishandling of the pandemic. [2]

Slow Response

The WHO was first notified of COVID-19 on December 31, 2019, when its Chinese office heard a media statement from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. [3] Despite international transmissions over the following weeks, the WHO did not classify COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency until January 30, 2020, and did not refer to the outbreak as a “pandemic” until March, by which point infections had spread throughout much of the world. [4]

Masks

In April 2020, the WHO released a statement claiming that wearing masks did not protect healthy people from COVID-19. One WHO health official even suggested that wearing masks could be dangerous since it created a false sense of security. [5] In June, the WHO’s policy advice reversed as it recommended that everyone should wear masks in densely populated areas. [6]

Viral Transmissibility without Symptoms

In June 2020, a WHO official stated that COVID-19 transmission among infected individuals without symptoms was “very rare.” The next day, the WHO official claimed she had misspoken and clarified that the extent of transmission from asymptomatic individuals was a “big open question.” Tom Frieden, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director under President Barack Obama, criticized the WHO for citing unpublished data in public policy advisements. [7]

International Travel

The WHO has been criticized for not advocating for travel restrictions at the onset of the pandemic, despite most countries doing so. President Donald Trump cited this as a major point of contention with the WHO and urged the WHO to reverse this policy through diplomatic channels. [8] [9]

Chinese Influence

Many critics, including former President Donald Trump and the Japanese government, [10] have claimed that the World Health Organization submitted to Chinese political demands throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. [11] Critics have argued that the WHO may be motivated to support China due to its rising share of financial contributions, the importance of accessing its data to combat the pandemic, and an increase in cooperative efforts between China and the WHO as China gains more influence over central Asian and African nations. [12] There has also been speculation that China worked behind-the-scenes to get current Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus elected in exchange for influence. [13]

At the onset of the pandemic, the WHO consistently republished Chinese government announcements and praised the Chinese government’s response even as COVID-19 spread across the country and then throughout the world. On January 14, the WHO’s Twitter account Tweeted: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.” In retrospect, many believe that China engaged in a coordinated effort to suppress knowledge of the coronavirus, including censoring its scientists and publishing false information. [14]

China waited until January 22, 2020 to acknowledge that the virus could spread between people and to disclose its true extent of spread within China, despite some Chinese doctors trying to inform the public for months. Shortly after revelations emerged that the government had suppressed social media accounts to stop Chinese doctors from informing the public about the extent of the spread of the virus, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus responded by commending China for its “transparency.” In a Washington Post report numerous WHO officials claimed they had been deceived by the Chinese government. [15]

Pandemic Origins Investigations

Since the start of the pandemic, some scientists and commenters have speculated that the COVID-19 virus was accidentally released by the Wuhan Virology Institute (WVI), a lab which studies coronaviruses based in Wuhan, the geographic origin of the virus. In January 2021, the WHO sent an investigative team to China to determine the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it also concluded that the virus evolved naturally in the environment. A joint report from the WHO and Chinese government concluded that the “lab leak hypothesis” was almost certainly false. Mainstream scientific and media outlets largely followed this conclusion, with many referring to the hypothesis as a conspiracy theory. [16]

The WHO’s team has come under sharp criticism for including Peter Daszak, the director of EcoHealth Alliance (EHA), a strong opponent of the lab-leak hypothesis from the start of the pandemic. In February 2020, a statement in The Lancet that was co-signed by 27 prominent public health scientists condemned accusations and theories that pointed to anything but natural origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The statement, which claimed that only “conspiracy theories” suggested that “COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” was organized by EHA and drafted by Peter Dasnak. Four others who co-signed the statement also work for EHA, including two members of the organization’s board of directors. [17]

The EHA has also been heavily criticized for providing the WVI with funding that EHA received from U.S. National Institutes of Health grants. According to Anthony Fauci, EHA sent nearly $600,000 to WVI to fund “a modest collaboration with very respectable Chinese scientists who were world experts on coronavirus.” This funding is being scrutinized due to reports that it contributed to gain-of-function research, which involves designing microorganisms like viruses to be more transmissible, resilient, and potentially lethal. [18]

Independent examinations of the investigation found that the WHO members were “severely constrained” while in China. Two officials were initially barred from entry into the country due to visa problems. The entire team was quarantined for two weeks after entry. “Chinese officials secured veto rights over who was involved; refused to share raw data on early COVID-19 cases; and restricted the team’s access to investigate different hypotheses.” AIDS Healthcare Foundation chief of global advocacy and policy Terri Ford dismissed the entire investigation as “a media performance shaped by the Chinese authorities toward political ends.” [19] [20]

In early 2021, evidence for the lab leak hypothesis began to mount, including the failure to identify a host animal for the initial viral mutation, revelations on the nature of research at the WVI, the discovery that WVI lab workers had fallen ill with COVID-like symptoms during the early days of the outbreak, and the Chinese government’s continued refusal to release infection data. [21]

In July 2021, China officially rejected a second attempt by the WHO to deploy an investigative team to China. [22]

In August 2021, a declassified report from President Joe Biden’s administration revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies and the White House officials considered the lab leak hypothesis to be unlikely but plausible. [23]

In October 2021, the WHO launched the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins on Novel Pathogens, consisting of scientists from the U.S., China, and over twenty other countries, to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic to prepare for future pandemics. WHO Director General Ghebreyesus has called for further audits of the WVI, but the Chinese government refuses to permit access. [24]

China’s Zero COVID Policy

China has maintained a “zero COVID” policy which permits extreme lockdown methods to stop the spread of COVID during periodic outbreaks over the last two years. In late March 2022, China instituted its most severe lockdown policy yet as the infectious Omicron variant began to spread. For two months, tens of millions and then hundreds of millions of citizens were confined to their homes and forced to undergo daily testing. [25]

In May, WHO Director General Ghebreyesus called for the lockdowns to end because they were not “sustainable” given the likely trajectory of the virus. Shortly after, the WHO, Ghebreyesus, and his statements were censored on Chinese social media, and a statement from a Chinese official called the WHO “irresponsible.” [26]

Chinese Traditional Medicine

China has successfully lobbied the WHO to incorporate Chinese traditional medicine, which generally does not stand up to Western empirical standards, into its policies. During the pandemic, the WHO briefly had a warning against Chinese medicine on its website, but it was removed under pressure from China. [27]

Controversies

President Donald Trump and the WHO

After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump was openly critical of the World Health Organization’s response and its connections with the Chinese government which allegedly pressured the WHO to “mislead the world” regarding its role in creating and unleashing the virus. President Trump said, “China has total control over the World Health Organization.” In April 2020, President Trump announced that the WHO had 30 days to enact “substantive improvements,” or the US would stop funding the agency. [28]

In May, American ambassador Andrew Bremberg presented a list of seven proposals to the WHO to keep the U.S. as a member, including an investigation into the WHO’s investigation into the origins of the virus, a declaration by the WHO demanding that China provide live virus samples from the Wuhan lab and cease censoring their own scientists, and a declaration from the WHO that nations had the prerogative to declare travel restrictions to slow the spread of the pandemic. [29]

Hours after the proposals were offered, President Trump announced that the US would cease funding and he declared his intentions to withdraw the U.S. from the WHO. [30]

In July 2020, the United States formally submitted its withdrawal from the WHO, but it would not go into effect until the following year. [31] [32]

On President Joe Biden’s first day in office in January 2021, he announced the cancellation of the WHO withdrawal and appointed Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health as the head of the U.S. delegation to the WHO’s executive board. [33]

Congo Sex Scandal

In September 2021, a report revealed that World Health Organization employees in the Congo had engaged in the systematic sexual extortion and rape of more than 70 employees and patients during and after the Ebola pandemic. The WHO first heard allegations in May 2019 and established an investigatory commission in October 2020. The abuse occurred during a period when WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited Congo 14 times. He admitted “ultimate” responsibility when the revelations became public. [34]

Italian Whistleblower

In May 2020, the World Health Organization published a report on an investigation of Italy’s pandemic preparedness. A few months later, the Guardian reported that senior WHO official Ranieri Guerra had threatened to fire lead researcher Francesco Zambon unless he modified the report to be less critical of the Italian government, which had not updated its pandemic policy since 2006. Guerra had been director of prevention at Italy’s Health Ministry from 2013 to 2017 and could have been blamed for Italy’s policy failure. [35]

Guerra lodged his complaints about the report and the conflict of interest with the WHO’s Ethics Office but received no response. In March 2021, after almost a year of allegedly being undermined and getting a demotion, Guerra resigned. [36]

Consulting Fees

In May 2021, an independent audit found that the World Health Organization had spent $11.72 million on consulting fees from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) during the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO faced criticisms for spending a sum on consultants which could have purchased 600,000 vaccines. The consulting contracts also violated numerous internal WHO regulations, including the circumvention of public procurement rules. [37]

Status of Taiwan

Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) has repeatedly failed to join the World Health Organization as a member due to the efforts of the People’s Republic of China, which claims Taiwan’s territory. Taiwan has the support of the United States and British governments. Taiwan’s most recent failed application was in May 2022. [38]

From 2008-2016, Taiwan was invited to the World Health Assembly as an “observer” under the name, “Chinese Taipei.” [39]

In May 2018, the WHO denied press passes to Taiwanese media to attend the World Health Assembly due to demands from the Chinese government. [40]

Funding

In 2022-2023, the World Health Organization has a $6.127 billion budget, a 5% increase over the previous year. [41]

The WHO is funded by its 194 member states. “Assessed” contributions, amounting to 13% of the current budget, are scaled to each member nation’s population and wealth. Almost the entire rest of the budget is based on “voluntary” contributions. [42]

The Unites States government is the WHO’s largest funder. It historically has given between $200-600 million annually, usually amounting to 22% of the budget. [43] In 2019, the US contributed $400 million, about 15% of the WHO’s budget. [44]

References

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