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What happened at World Health Assembly?
There is considerable confusion as to what happened in the diplomatic bridge game between rising China and declining US, declining at an accelerated pace under President Trump, who holding trumps got trumped badly by President Xi Jinping who finessed to perfection with his weaker hand.
Let us deal with Trump’s self-goal. He had excellent arguments against China and the WHO.
He could have argued that China acted irresponsibly toward its own people by permitting the Mayor of Wuhan to hold a banquet for 40,000 families on 18th January when instances of pneumonia of unknown aetiology had appeared in the city more than five weeks prior to that. The virus went viral with that banquet.
The next argument will be that China acted irresponsibly vis-à-vis the World Health Organization, when it reported on 31st of December of instances of pneumonia of unknown aetiology in Wuhan. China was disingenuous when it told the WHO that there was ‘no evidence’ of human-to-human transmission (HTHT). China should have said that there was reason to worry about the possible HTHT, though clear evidence was lacking. That would have been a responsible and scientifically sensible statement. By that convoluted communication, China endangered the international community.
The third argument against China would be that it delayed a visit by the WHO experts; put pressure on the DG who had got elected with its support to delay proper action in the matter as we shall see below.
The first charge against the WHO will be that it acted with unpardonable naivete when it swallowed hook, line, and sinker what China told it on 31st December. The HTHT would lead to an epidemic in China, and if that is not controlled, to a pandemic. Hence the WHO should have put out an alert to its member-states and got in touch with the CDCs (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) in U.S. and other countries. Instead, the WHO tweeted as late as 14th January that there was no evidence of HTHT. This was an atrocity as on the 13th there was an infection in Thailand, accountable only on the basis of HTHT.
The second charge against the WHO will be that though an eminent virologist, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, 83, deputed by Beijing to Wuhan to investigate the matter went on national television on 20th January and pointed out the looming danger of an epidemic, the WHO remained unconcerned. It was only after Beijing declared a lockdown in Wuhan that the WHO convened its Emergency Committee. That Committee committed a culpable blunder by delaying action. It was divided between those who wanted to act professionally and others who wanted to ‘please’ China. After meeting on the 22nd and 23rd of January, the Emergency Committee decided to meet again after ten days, indeed a bizarre decision on a matter of emergency relating to global health.
The DG had second thoughts. He went to Beijing on the 26th. Did he go there to seek permission before declaring a global emergency? Most likely! On his return, the Emergency Committee met without waiting for ten days to elapse and on 30th January a PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern) was declared. Paradoxically, on the same day the WHO DG declared that there was no need to stop flights between China and the rest of the world. Was he saying that though there was HTHT, people can fly in and out? He was irresponsibly saying precisely that.
The next question: Why did the WHO wait till 11th March, 40 days after the declaration of PHEIC to declare a pandemic? Was it out-snailing the snail? By the time the pandemic was declared it had been around for a while. On the day the WHO made the declaration the number of infections was 80955 and, alas, 3162 human beings had died. Is there a rule that an epidemic can be declared only after more than 3,000 human beings had died?
In short, Trump had good cards. He played the game with atrocious clumsiness. He threatened the WHO with non-payment of US contribution, when the whole world knew that only the Senate could take that decision. But that threat repeatedly made weakened Trump’s case. The case was further weakened by Secretary Pompeio. He claimed again and again that he ‘had seen enormous evidence’ against China. The more he repeated, without producing any shred of evidence, the less credible he sounded.
Xi Jinping watching his fellow president’s trumperies moved in with his killer instinct. He addressed the World Health Assembly on day one. Presented his case with sober eloquence and fortified it further by offering $ 2 billion to assist the developing countries, making a specific reference to helping Africa establish a CDC.
Coming to the confusion, the media including the New York Times reported inaccurately on the final resolution unanimously adopted. The media report said that there was a decision to conduct a review, “impartial and independent” on what the WHO did in the context of Covid-19. The word “impartial’ was there in the draft submitted by over 100 countries. The original drafting was by the EU and Australia stiffened it by adding “impartial”. China which had initially opposed the resolution declared its support as more and more countries joined in. Finally, it was decided to leave it to the Chair to propose the resolution. As proposed by the Chair the word “impartial” is missing.
There is another more important point. A close reading of the resolution shows that it is the DG who is being requested to undertake the review at an appropriate time. Obviously, there cannot be an ‘impartial and independent review’ of what the DG did. In short, there will be no meaningful review done in a time-bound manner.
China played with a weak hand and gained. However, the confrontation between Beijing and Washington is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Amb K P Fabian
28 May 2020