This week president Trump expanded his arsenal for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He went from a blame-China-not-me strategy to a blame-China-and-the-World-Health-Organization-not-me strategy.
Officials at WHO, Trump said at a press conference, are “very biased toward China”—just look at how, in the early weeks of the outbreak, they “said there’s no big deal, there’s no big problem, there’s nothing.” So Trump will be “looking into” whether to freeze US funding for WHO.
Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida is on board. A week before Trump’s press conference, he called for hearings into WHO’s performance. The World Health Organization, Scott says, “lied to us. It was intentional. People are dying because of it.” So, “as soon as Congress is back in session, there should be a hearing, along with a full investigation, to review whether American taxpayers should continue to spend millions of dollars every year to fund an organization that willfully parroted propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party.”
This is a familiar right-wing move: subject international institutions to scrutiny that, if all goes according to plan, can be used to justify cutting their funding. Then, as the script typically unfolds, global governance fans like me spring to the defense of these institutions.
In this case, though, I’m partly in sync with the right-wing move. I don’t agree with Scott that we should do the investigation ASAP (since at the moment both we and the World Health Organization are kind of, um, busy). And I’m not in favor of cutting WHO funding. I’m also not nearly as sure as Scott that WHO is guilty as charged. But the organization could have performed better in the early stages of the contagion, and there’s at least some reason to suspect that people at WHO knowingly and consequentially misled us.
Before I get into the consequential misleading, let me lay out a larger reason that I think fellow global governance fans should consider getting on the investigate-WHO bandwagon.
Institutions of international governance, like institutions of national governance, are prone to a particular form of corruption: they’re inclined to serve powerful interests at the expense of their mission.
For example: Back in 2002, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—the international body that monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention—was doing something that John Bolton, then in George W. Bush’s state department, found annoying. OPCW’s director, Jose Bustani, was trying to get Iraq to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which would have subjected the country to immediate OPCW inspections. As Bustani noted years later, these inspections might have made it “obvious there were no weapons to destroy. This would completely nullify the decision to invade.”
The Bush Administration used its clout to force Bustani out of office. He was replaced by an OPCW director less inclined to disobey America. Problem solved: Aversion of disastrous war averted.
I suspect that if Rick Scott had been a senator back then, and had been apprised of the Bush administration’s intervention, he would have been less outraged than he is now by the thought of an international institution betraying its mission under pressure from a powerful nation. But if you’re someone who genuinely wants global governance to flourish, it shouldn’t matter which nation is exerting the pressure or what particular mission is being corrupted. You should want international institutions to function with integrity and efficiency and you should want to expose them when they fail. You should want to unearth problems at both OPCW and WHO.
Which brings us back to the question of misconduct by the World Health Organization. The basic allegation is that China tried to “cover up” the Covid-19 outbreak, and WHO helped it do that.
The most damning piece of evidence is a WHO tweet on Jan. 14 reporting that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” This came 18 days after a group of doctors notified Wuhan health officials of a disturbing cluster of illnesses, and 14 days after both China’s national government and WHO were officially notified. Is it really plausible that officials in Beijing or at WHO still doubted that the illness was moving from person to person?
If you wanted to make the case for plausibility, here’s what you would say:
The New York Times has reported that, starting in December, local health officials in Wuhan, out of “a political aversion to sharing bad news, withheld information about cases from the national reporting system—keeping Beijing in the dark and delaying the response.” And “even after Beijing got involved, local officials set narrow criteria for confirming cases, leaving out information that could have provided clues that the virus was spreading among humans.” In particular, “hospitals were ordered to count only patients with a known connection to the source of the outbreak,” the now-infamous “wet market.” So every patient being counted could in theory have gotten the virus directly from food sold there. Indeed, the first death, reported three days before the WHO tweet, involved a patient who had been to the market.