Lanhee Chen: WHO reform – investigate coronavirus response and demand these changes at annual meeting

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The World Health Organization botched its response to the novel coronavirus. It legitimized China’s early and misleading claims about the disease, which set back the initial response to the virus in other countries, including the United States.

As the pandemic has worn on, the WHO has continued its slavish praise for Beijing and failed to get to the truth about the origins of the virus, or its early spread. President Trump announced his administration will soon unveil a policy to address the organization’s shortcomings.

This week, member countries will gather for the annual meeting of the WHO's decision-making body, the World Health Assembly. The United States should use the gathering to press for an accounting of the WHO’s actions during the current pandemic, as well as reforms to the organization.


The WHO suggests it will seek an “after action report” of its response to the coronavirus pandemic. But such a review can’t wait and shouldn’t be conducted internally. What’s needed is an independent investigation of the WHO’s reaction to the coronavirus crisis and, in particular, an accounting of the interactions between the WHO’s leadership and China’s government.

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We should be particularly concerned about how the cozy relationship between WHO leader Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Chinese President Xi Jinping may compromise the organization’s ongoing response to the pandemic.

A news report recently suggested that German intelligence officials found that Xi personally asked Tedros to delay declaring the coronavirus a pandemic and to withhold information regarding the human-to-human transmission of the virus. If true, Tedros’ willingness to accede to Xi’s request casts doubt on the WHO’s ability to put public health concerns ahead of political ones for the duration of this crisis, and future ones. 
We wouldn’t be alone in demanding this review – the Australian government also argues such action is needed now. Time is of the essence because the WHO continues to make pronouncements about the current pandemic and we must have confidence that its future recommendations are presented honestly and without favor any member country. Also, the investigation should be independently run to ensure its completeness but also so that Tedros, or Beijing, do not simply dismiss its findings or hide them from plain view.

The WHO’s member countries can benefit from Taiwan’s experience in fighting the virus. But for years, China has blocked Taiwan’s participation.

The U.S. should also use the WHA meeting to push for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO. The organization continues to stonewall its participation, even though Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus has been exemplary. In fact, Taiwan has limited cases and deaths from the virus, all while eschewing the economic lockdowns that have become all too common in countries across the globe.

Taiwan's success stems, in part, from an inherent suspicion of the communist apparatus in Beijing. Taiwan was aggressive early in imposing travel restrictions from the mainland. It also queried the WHO in late December about the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, weeks before China admitted it was possible.     
The WHO’s member countries can benefit from Taiwan’s experience in fighting the virus. But for years, China has blocked Taiwan’s participation not only in the World Health Assembly but also in over one hundred technical meetings where the real work of improving global public health is done. 
A bipartisan coalition in Congress, in concert with the Trump administration, has led a group of like-minded countries like Japan and New Zealand to convince the WHO to allow Taiwan to participate in this week’s WHA meeting. But the effort failed last week when the WHO announced Tedros had “no mandate” to invite Taiwan to the meetings. This despite the fact that Taiwan was granted observer status at WHA meetings from 2009 to 2016. Then, when a more China-friendly administration was in power in Taipei, it seems there was a mandate.


Clearly, Beijing pulls Tedros’ strings when it comes to political questions such as Taiwan’s inclusion. But Taiwan’s participation is not a matter of politics, but of public health.
Finally, the U.S. should use this week's meeting to make it clear that we want a new leader for the WHO. Although Tedros isn’t up for reelection until 2022, it’s never too early to make him a lame duck. Tedros has eschewed transparency in a number of critical decisions, all while showing fealty to Beijing on critical matters. Sidelining him now would allow us to identify a successor we can support while empowering others at the organization who will emphasize values like accountability and openness in the WHO’s ongoing efforts.

The U.S. has, until recently, been too absent from fights over the leadership of international organizations like the WHO. The Trump administration deserves credit for taking these organizations – and China’s influence in them – more seriously.


In March, a U.S.-backed candidate was elected the head of the World Intellectual Property Organization after a campaign that had China crying foul about U.S. influence. We need more of that influence, not less, in future elections for the leadership of international organizations like the WHO.

If we're unable to achieve these goals, the U.S. should consider creating an alternative venue for advancing the cause of improved public health around the world. Such an endeavor will take time.  For now, we must do all we can to push the WHO to do the right thing. Because as long as the organization plays the role it does, lives here in America and around the world are at stake.