It is no coincidence that two of the most deadliest viruses since the turn of the century have originated in China. The SARS virus, which is also from the family of coronaviruses, was first reported in China in November 2002 as it originated from one of South China’s wet markets in the Foshan municipality of Guangdong province. Fast forward to November 2019, the first case of COVID-19, a novel Coronavirus, was reported in China as it originated from Wuhan’s Huanan wet market. While the former was successfully contained thanks to the astute and independent work of the WHO, the latter one has infected over half a million people across the globe thanks to the WHO’s pandering to the Chinese government.
The WHO’s reaction to the SARS epidemic is a case study of how an international health body should respond to contain the deadly virus while the WHO’s reaction to the Wuhan virus is a textbook case of what not to do when faced with a possible pandemic.
During the SARS virus, the WHO was presided by Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland who was the then Director-General of the prestigious body who had also earlier served three terms as the Prime Minister of Norway.
Under her stewardship, the SARS virus was successfully contained after an 8 month-long battle. China, true to its character, initially attempted to downplay the virus but the WHO was quick to criticise the country for its opaque handling of the virus and refusal to cooperate with other countries and organisations.
So much was the WHO’s pressure that China was forced to sacrifice its Health Minister and the Mayor of Beijing. Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong was fired by the Chinese Communist Party for underreporting the virus while the then Health Minister Zhang Wenkang was made to pay the price for his false admission that the virus was “under control”.
The current Chinese Vice President, Wang Qishan was parachuted as the Mayor of Beijing who then swiftly moved to tackle the virus. He was applauded for his transparency as he called for daily press releases over the latest information of the SARS outbreak. His frankness endeared Qishan into the hearts of the Chinese and it is no wonder that there were calls for Qishan to take over from Xi Jinping during the height of the virus in China.
Compare it to the current reaction of the WHO. Let alone criticising the Xi Jinping government for its lack of transparency as anyone who dared to expose the Chinese government mysteriously disappeared, it shockingly made a 40-page report where it applauded the “transparent” handling of the Wuhan virus.
While the Communist government has imposed a two-month lockdown on Wuhan, the WHO report meekly mentions the lockdown as “strict traffic restrictions” and “the cordon sanitaire”. The report lauds China’s epidemic response measures — but conveniently ignores the late-December / early-January dates that might implicate the party’s initial mismanagement of the crisis.
If there were any doubts on the neutrality of the report, a line in the report reads that: “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.”
The organisation is yet to say a word against the country’s wet markets which have resulted in two devastating epidemics. Back then, the WHO had specifically urged the international community to investigate the animal “farms” which would act as a source for future epidemics. The Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland led WHO specifically identified the country’s wet markets where the deadly virus’ can jump from animals to humans.
Viruses as deadly as the Wuhan virus usually have a very narrow host range in terms of the species they can infect, and therefore this cross-over was possible only in a place like the Wuhan wet market, which is one of the rare places were bats, pangolins and humans are found at one place, thus resulting in the outbreak of the virus. Pangolins from an endangered species, illegally traded, and faces the risk of being eaten to extinction.
The Dr Tedros led WHO’s refusal to restrict international travel during the initial stages of the pandemic served as a death knell of any hopes of containing the virus at its initiation. During the SARS outbreak, the organisation had quickly moved in to advise the world from travelling to China.
More importantly, the then Hu Jintao government under pressure from the WHO cancelled the May Day holiday festivities and restricted internal travel. The long weekend sees millions of Chinese travel across the country and the world. This time around, the Chinese government colluded with the WHO and allowed the Lunar New Year celebrations to take place, thus giving a field day to the virus to infect millions of people.
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The events that unfolded in January 2020 reveals the role WHO played in aiding the spread of the Wuhan virus. The WHO on January 14 took to Twitter to claim that there is no clear evidence of human to human transmission of the novel coronavirus — a stand endorsed by the Xi Jinping government at that time.
This effectively gave the validation that the Chinese government was waiting for as it prepared for the Lunar New Year celebrations on January 25. The Lunar New Year celebrations result in the world’s largest annual migration taking place. Mass-scale travels took place in China after which Coronavirus has been spread to nearly every part of the country and also Hong Kong where Chinese patients were being taken to receive free and better healthcare until the Hong Kong leadership was pressurised to close the border.
At this exact juncture, the Wuhan virus spread its deadly wings across the globe as the Chinese new year celebrations supercharged the virus. The Wuhan Mayor admitted on January 26th, that over 5 million people left Wuhan before the travel ban, thus spreading the virus. According to an estimate, the Chinese tourists were expected to make 450 million trips this year all of which were scheduled to take place during the period of 24th-30th January, on the occasion of Lunar New Year.
Only if the Dr Tedros led WHO had sought to restrict travel to and fro from China while downplaying the virus, the world would have been a much better lay. The European Union relied on the WHO’s wisdom and didn’t restrict travel to and fro from China and now they are the epicentre of the Wuhan virus.
Apart from ignoring Taiwan’s early warnings over the possible threat of human-to-human transmission of the virus, the WHO on February 28 listed Taiwan as “very high risk” at a time when the country had only 34 confirmed cases of the Wuhan virus. This had a devastating impact on Taiwan as countries like Italy, Philippines and Vietnam restricted the flights to and fro from Taiwan and also the entry of Taiwanese nationals.
If the organisation had done the same for China in January, the Wuhan virus would have well been nipped in the bud with the Lunar New Year celebrations not being allowed to act as a breeding ground for the virus.
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Millions of lives wouldn’t have been destroyed if the WHO had just decided against issuing a travel advisory and placing China under “high risk” nations. Based on the evidence, there is no doubt that the Wuhan virus wouldn’t have been allowed to become a pandemic under the tenure of Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland.