The World Health Organization has appointed former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who criticized the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO as “foolish,” to lead the embattled agency’s probe into the coronavirus pandemic -- as the Trump administration says it fears a “whitewashed” investigation.
Clark, who was PM from 1999 to 2008 and later headed the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), was announced last week as the co-chair of WHO’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR) along with former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Clark was tipped as a top contender for the role of U.N. Secretary-General in 2016.
But in an interview in April with WION, she criticized the U.S. decision to leave the body, a move made over concerns WHO was too close to Beijing, as "foolish."
“To withdraw funding from the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic is clearly foolish," she said in an interview, flagged by journalist Sara Carter. "About 15 percent of the WHO's budget comes from the United States of America and actually the biggest share of that funding goes to very important programs, like the eradication of polio."
She also appeared to knock the U.S. for its demand that a U.N. Security Council resolution on the virus explicitly include a mention of the Chinese origins of the virus.
"If you, as a major country with a veto power on the Security Council, enter the room with the attitude that you are determined to have in the resolution a name for the virus which is not the scientific name but the name of the place where the virus came from, then you know you don't really want a resolution, you're just entering a blame game."
This week, in an interview with CBS News, she said it was "very distressing" that the U.S. had left, and said she hoped that the U.S. would reenter the organization.
"I don't think these decisions are forever, and I very much hope we'll see the U.S. back in there, playing the role that it's traditionally played," she said.
Clark has raised concerns from U.N. critics over past comments she has made in relation to the virus. In March, she tweeted about Cuba’s response:
"#Cuba is known globally for its willingness to send health professional teams to the most challenging emergencies. Full marks to it for sending personnel to #Covid_19 - stricken #Italy”
For that, she attracted the ire of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based watchdog: “Helen Clark has an attraction to Communist dictatorships. Here she is showering praise on Cuba's Communist regime for sending doctors abroad.”
It’s also accused her of being too close to China as well as WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. But in remarks in May, Clark was critical of the Chinese response and said it took seven days after Chinese officials determined the virus was a “huge threat” to warn their people.
“In that seven days, millions began traveling for the Lunar New Year and in Wuhan...there were thousands of people at mass events, so this is pretty disturbing," she said on Global Americans.
“If you want to be a great power that is respected, and fear doesn’t bring respect, then you have to be upfront as utterly transparent with the international community," she said.
She also expressed concern about countries allowing Huawei access to their systems, saying it appeared to be approved on cost, rather than for security reasons. But she also stood by her decision as prime minister to make New Zealand the first country to sign a free trade deal with China.
“To those who criticize efforts to bring China into the international rules-based trading order, I would ask, well what’s the alternative?" she asked. "To have them operating out there outside the multilateral rules framework? That’s really unthinkable.”
The U.S. announced in May that it would withdraw from the World Health Organization over the WHO's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump has cited WHO officials' praise of Chinese "transparency," its dismissal of warnings about the virus from Taiwan, and its repetition of Chinese claims that COVID-19 could not be spread from person-to-person. Trump has also pointed to opposition from WHO officials to his decision to place a travel ban on China in the initial days of the crisis.
"Chinese officials ignored their reporting obligations to the World Health Organization and pressured the World Health Organization to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered by Chinese authorities," he said, announcing the move. "Countless lives have been taken and profound economic hardship has been inflicted across the globe."
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated that he was not hopeful for the upcoming investigation, particularly given the Chinese government's lack of transparency in the past.
“This is a regime that failed to disclose information they had about a virus that’s now killed over 100,000 Americans, hundreds of thousands across the world, cost the global economy trillions and trillions of dollars, and now is allowing the World Health Organization to go in to conduct what I am confident will be a completely, completely whitewashed investigation,” he said.