Leaders seek global unity, review of pandemic response at WHO talks

Reviewing the global response to the pandemic will be important in future but fighting the coronavirus is more important right now, leaders said at World Health Organization (WHO) talks that were overshadowed by US attacks on the UN agency.

US President Trump has suspended funding of the WHO in Geneva, accusing it of helping Beijing cover up how widespread and how dangerous coronavirus was after it broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

The virus was able to spread across the globe because countries failed to fight it together, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Monday, as the annual meeting of WHO member states started online.

“We have seen some solidarity, but very little unity, in our response to Covid-19,” he said from New York, referring to the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus.

Because many countries ignored the WHO’s recommendations, “the virus has spread across the world and is now moving into the global south, where its impact may be even more devastating.”

Several world leaders threw their weight behind the WHO and called for increased funding for the agency, while saying that the performance of the UN health agency and of the entire international community in the pandemic should be scrutinized.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that members “should continue to improve processes in the WHO,” French President Emmanuel Macron called for an “honest and rigorous assessment.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that he would launch such a review.

“I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment,” he said, reacting to a formal proposal by countries from all regions, including the European Union.

Contrary to Washington’s calls to scrutinize the WHO, the multi-country proposal said that the review should also look at whether the WHO has adequate tools at its disposal.

While Tedros agreed to this process, he stressed that a separate routine probe by independent health policy experts from around the world has already drawn up some recommendations.

In a first interim report that was published on Monday, the experts found that the WHO’s outbreak alarm system should be reviewed, given that some countries reacted slowly to the pandemic.

This raises the question of whether the global health crisis declared by the WHO was “a sufficiently clear trigger” for country-level action, the report said.

While the review said that the WHO reacted very quickly to the outbreak, it also found that the UN agency’s emergency operations team “is overstretched due to the huge demand generated by the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that his country will contribute 2 billion dollars over the next two years for the global fight against the outbreak, which has resulted in more than 4.5 million Covid-19 cases and more than 300,000 associated deaths so far.

The money is not only earmarked for health measures, but also for development aid for affected countries, Xi said.

While Chinese-US tensions overshadowed the meeting, one issue of discord between the global rivals was defused when WHO member states agreed to tackle the issue of Taiwan’s status at the WHO at a later date.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the exclusion of Taiwan from the ongoing assembly, accusing the WHO of playing politics and succumbing to pressure from China during a pandemic.

In direct criticism of Tedros, Pompeo said the organization’s chief displayed a “lack of independence” and could have included Taiwan, which is not recognized as a state by the UN under pressure from China.

Pompeo said the decision hurt the WHO’s “credibility and effectiveness,” in the latest barb against the organization, following the decision by President Trump to halt funding for the health body.

“We need multilateral institutions to deliver on their stated missions and to serve the interests of all member states, not to play politics while lives are at stake,” Pompeo said, adding that Taiwan’s containment of the virus was one of the best responses globally.

The WHO argues that it cannot invite Taiwan to its annual meeting without a formal decision by member countries, given that the United Nations recognizes China but not Taiwan.

Taiwan sent a protest letter to the WHO, Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung told a news conference in Taipei.

“It’s a loss for the WHO that the Taiwan model won’t be able to be shared at such an important meeting,” he said, referring to Taiwan’s success in containing the coronavirus.