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OP-ED: WHO is just a scapegoat

  • Published at 07:02 pm June 19th, 2020
WHO building
A logo of the World Health Organization (WHO) is seen at an office building BIGSTOCK

Trump’s propaganda machine has made WHO and China out to be the bad guys in this pandemic


Like most of his foreign and international policy decisions, Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the World Health Organization (WHO) didn’t surprise me. 

Trump’s main complaint about international agencies has been that America doesn’t get to dictate how those agencies are operated despite being the largest financial contributor. A similar frustration he holds about international treaties and agreements -- the US cannot do whatever it wants because of those treaties and agreements. 

How does he quell his frustration? He pulls out of treaties, agreements, and international agencies where he cannot have his way. Trump’s broader agenda is to portray himself as the one who can establish a country ruled only by the Caucasian Christians of European descent -- in other words, a nation of “white supremacy.” 

When he pulled out of the WHO, it was perfectly in line with his deeper political agenda of winning the second term in office and take the cause of white supremacy as far as possible. Even though this decision was not supported by America’s most trusted allies around the world, that didn’t matter to Trump. Because he knows he didn’t do it to make WHO function better; he did it to assuage his ardent supporters and to advance his political agenda.

What surprised me though is the support he is getting for his WHO decision from people around the world who are not Trump’s traditional supporters. After analyzing the points people are making in their support, it started to make sense to me. Trump was able to hit the right chord with quite a few who are otherwise not his fans by aligning WHO with China and highlighting WHO’s public health recommendations for Covid-19 in a negative light. 

A close look at those arguments reveals that those are mostly baseless claims. Let’s explore.

WHO didn’t stop all international flights in and out of Wuhan in time

This has supposedly caused the virus to seep out of the region and spread internationally. This would be a fault of WHO if WHO had the authority to force a country to stop International flights and they didn’t act on that authority. WHO can only recommend trade and travel restrictions under international public health emergencies. 

Following its policy, WHO declared the health emergency on January 30, 2020, when the coronavirus was found outside of China. By that time, China had already stopped all flights in and out of Wuhan including international flights. 

So, WHO didn’t need to act on that. Italy stopped flights from China on January 31, 2020, after a Chinese couple in Rome tested positive, even before the US stopped flights from China. It is only the Trump administration that spread the unfounded rumour that China allowed the virus to spread internationally. 

There are many similar conspiracy theories that were given life by the Trump administration to point fingers at others for the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus in the US. What if we ask, had WHO recommended US to stop all international flights if coronavirus had started there, would Trump have listened? We all can imagine what the answer would be. 

Trump would have bullied WHO and would have made the same decision. Because Trump’s decision had nothing to do with making WHO function better, but to show his macho attitude to his supporters and pivot away from his own failures.

WHO didn’t recommend the use of face masks for everyone in time

Till today, neither CDC, nor any other health care agency has compelled people to wear mask except in a public place where other people are around. Experts are still learning about Covid-19, and WHO’s recommendations have always been based on what it knew at any given time. 

Trump himself doesn’t wear masks, even when he is with other people in public settings. He mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask. So, even if one accepts that WHO’s advice on masks was not appropriate or timely, that cannot be the argument to support Trump’s WHO decision as Trump himself was never a proponent of the face mask. Moreover, each country can decide to implement more stringent policies than what WHO recommends.

WHO is reluctant to endorse any medicine for Covid-19 treatment

WHO is responsible for directing and coordinating international health within the UN system. Its governing body, the World Health Assembly, has representations from all 194 member states. For an agency with such a large governing body and other diverse stakeholders, it can only function by sticking to scientific reasoning for its decisions. 

Otherwise, it would become political football. So, when it comes to recommending medicines and therapies for a disease like Covid-19, it has no other choice but to depend on its worldwide panel of health care experts. Unlike Trump, WHO’s director-general cannot promote drugs that are not recommended by experts. 

It can only recommend what has been proven to work -- testing, isolation, and social distancing. Moreover, WHO is not like the FDA. It doesn’t have the authority to approve any drug for any treatment. We have all witnessed how members of Trump’s own coronavirus task force and CDC have time and again avoided recommending hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 patients despite Trump’s insistence on its efficacy. 

US FDA has only given Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) -- in the absence of clinical trial -- for Remdesivir, because it seemed to have shortened Covid-19 patients’ recovery times. FDA and NIH have clearly said that this EUA has restricted authorization and Remdesivir can only to be used in hospital settings. 

No other drug has been approved for Covid-19 treatment. So, if a clinician wants to prescribe some medicine like Remdesivir, hydroxychloroquine, or anything else for Covid-19 treatment, it will certainly be at the risk of that clinician and the patient. 

As WHO is not the authority to approve any drug, if asked about Covid-19 treatment, it can only say what it knows -- which is that there is no drug to treat Covid-19. Any government is free to ignore WHO and do whatever it thinks is the best for the country. Conspiracy theories abound. For example, some believe WHO is biased towards vaccine products over therapy products. How laughable! 

We all want an effective vaccine against Covid-19 as soon as possible, but why would any vaccine advocate be against viral therapy if it helps Covid-19 patients until vaccines are available? When both are available, most people will likely choose to be vaccinated, and a few may choose therapy over vaccine. 

But, I can think of one group that won’t be happy when the Covid-19 vaccine comes out. That group would be the pharmaceutical companies that produce anti-viral and other drugs that are currently being touted for Covid-19 treatment. I can see how those drug sales will plummet when vaccines become available.

Besides, clinicians are free to prescribe whatever they think is the best course of action for their patients even in the absence of WHO’s endorsement of any drug. Moreover, WHO is also working to find help for Covid-19 patients.

WHO is more about DON’Ts rather than DOs

Yes, it is true that WHO hasn’t said a lot about Covid-19 treatment options, but it says quite a lot about the prevention of spread of the virus. And that is supposed to be WHO’s domain of expertise.

WHO defends China unfairly

People have been asking why WHO praised China’s Covid-19 actions and defended China regarding the source of coronavirus. I agree if WHO said or did anything to unfairly favour China, it should face consequences. WHO is governed by 194 members of the organization. 

WHO had its most recent meetings of the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board in May 2020. We have not seen any fallout of the WHO leadership despite very strong rebuke of the WHO by its biggest financial contributor and most powerful member, the US. 

Why wasn’t its director general or any other top leaders shown the door by the governing body? The answer may be that WHO didn’t do anything violating its constitution, and the majority of WHO membership including the US’s important allies couldn’t find any evidence to suggest that WHO unfairly favoured China.

When WHO supported China regarding the source of coronavirus, was it because WHO favoured China or was it that WHO had proof that the virus wasn’t developed in a lab and that it truly started from an animal? What if WHO is simply standing by the truth? Moreover, the US being the largest contributor to WHO’s budget, it would be foolish for WHO to jeopardize that source of revenue, being fully aware of the current US administration’s position on China.

Like most of Trump’s decisions, this one is also rooted in his desire to get re-elected. There is nothing wrong with wanting to stay in office for the second term. Every first term US president would like to be in the White House for another four years. 

But it is important for us to understand how Trump’s political aspiration can damage institutions like WHO that the entire world depends on. It is important to reveal the truth so that further damage is prevented. 

If America didn’t need WHO, it would have pulled out a long time ago. America’s policy-makers know how much US depends on WHO to maintain the country’s security and economy. Covid-19 has already proven that. 

Had the US administration listened to and worked with WHO, the human and economic casualty would have been much smaller. It will be much harder for America to protect itself from future pandemics if it loses its relationship with WHO.

Preventing pandemics is in every country’s interest, more so for the American health and economy. Trump has made his decision alone. Neither any one of America’s strongest allies in the West nor Trump’s personal favourite, Russia, has criticized, or taken any action against WHO. 

So, why did Trump pull out of WHO? Because he is getting desperate for his re-election. First, he completely disregarded the severity of Covid-19 because he didn’t want to shut down the economy during the election year. 

When he realized that he made a blunder by not taking early action, it was too late. Covid-19 has spread far and wide in the US. State and local governments were forced to shut down locally to protect local populations and compensate for federal inaction. 

State governors, city mayors, and county health officials became the heroes, and the blame for such a huge number of Covid-19 deaths squarely fell on Trump. He started to look like a sham of a leader. His campaign team began to panic. 

So, they desperately sought scapegoats for the Covid-19 disaster. They found China and WHO -- a pair of perfect targets for causing America’s Covid-19 pains and woes. So, Trump’s propaganda machine started to manufacture fake stories about an evil WHO-China connection, and began feeding those to the public.

If the public starts to bite, his chances of winning the election will start to go up. But he could have avoided this falsehood had he paid attention to his own intelligence reports from November 2019 and taken early action. 

Americans would have been in a better place with much lower death counts, and the economy would have restarted much earlier -- both giving Trump a fighting chance of winning the election. Unfortunately, Trump will have to bathe in and eat his own Covid-19 mud. 

As the election nears, Trump’s desperation will grow, and he will continue to feed more and more scapegoat stories to make up for the lack of his leadership. This time though, the American people have started to see right through him, and November can’t come any sooner. 

Nisar Ahmed is an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) professional living and working in California, US.

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