The WHO isn’t to blame for Trump’s disastrous coronavirus response

“The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease swept across the globe not because of the WHO’s errors but because of a “very fragmented, chaotic, state-centric response,” according to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And now, with over 2 million reported cases and 125,000 deaths worldwide, countries “failing in their response have decided WHO is the culprit,” says Ashish Jha, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.”

“Most experts agree there are some legitimate criticisms of how the agency has handled the Covid-19 global health crisis, particularly in how it responded to China’s initial delays and suppression of key information. Other critiques, they say, are less founded.”

“On January 22, just three weeks after first being notified of the virus’s existence, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus convened an emergency meeting to determine if the outbreak qualified as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the agency’s term for an “extraordinary event” that requires a coordinated international response — like SARS, H1N1, and Ebola outbreaks in 2014 and 2019. The experts couldn’t agree and decided to meet again. After the director-general traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on January 29, a PHEIC was declared on January 30.

This declaration activated WHO measures to “address travel, trade, quarantine, screening, treatment” as well as national measures in countries that have tied their pandemic response plans to WHO declarations. “I called for WHO to do it a little earlier,” says Gostin, “but it had no impact on the epidemic.” Jha agrees. “I think they could have called it when they initially met, but it wouldn’t have made a big difference,” he says.”

“all the experts Vox interviewed agreed that the US government’s lack of preparation for Covid-19 was not a result of WHO delays.”

“ABC News reports US intelligence agencies warned the White House and the Pentagon of the disease as early as November. In January, trade adviser Peter Navarro warned the White House that the novel coronavirus could kill half a million Americans. In February, the US lost valuable weeks failing to develop effective testing. As late as February 27, Trump told a press briefing the virus would “disappear.” The next day, the first American died of Covid-19.

“WHO is not responsible for America not heeding the warnings of its own scientists and security apparatus — for two months,” says Jha. “That’s laughable.”” 

“WHO has offered little criticism of governments’ responses.”

“More than 430,000 people traveled from China to over 17 American cities after the virus was discovered but before the ban; another 40,000 people arrived to the US from China after the ban went into place.”

“Although the WHO has not publicly criticized the American travel ban, it doesn’t recommend travel or trade restrictions during disease outbreaks, both because they often don’t work and because they can make disease response more difficult. Kamradt-Scott recalls firsthand his difficulty in trying to get from Australia to West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, when all but two commercial airlines had stopped flying there. “It’s not simply that it causes economic damage, but that it impedes responses,” he says. ” 

“Kamradt-Scott, however, is on the fence. He has just completed a literature review, looking at travel and trade restrictions, and his view is that travel bans “may have helped delay the arrival of the virus.” He predicts that eventually Covid-19 research will cause the WHO to revisit some of its guidelines. “It’s rather fraught. It does create economic problems, but if it can help countries by giving them time to prepare, perhaps it can be justified on that ground.”

But, he adds, “Trump implemented travel restrictions but then did nothing to prepare the country, so again, that really comes back to his administration.””

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