World Health Organization Fumbles Coronavirus

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Posted: Apr 08, 2020 1:34 PM
World Health Organization Fumbles Coronavirus

Source: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Reviewing public policy and the coronavirus, I’ve mostly focused on the manifest failures of Washington bureaucracies.

But let’s not overlook the politicized incompetence of the World Health Organization, a U.N.-connected bureaucracy that ostensibly exists to prevent global pandemics.

Much of that criticism, as illustrated by this National Review column by Senator Marco Rubio, has focused on the WHO’s ties to China.

…there is grave cause for concern over the independence of the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO). …a systemic problem within WHO leadership: a subservience to Beijing that comes at the expense of its stated commitment to public health. …the WHO refused to act on or publicize Taiwan’s warning that the new respiratory infection emerging in China could pass from human to human. …the organization repeated the CCP’s lie that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. …the WHO, at Beijing’s behest, also blocked Taiwan from participating in critical meetings to coordinate responses to the coronavirus and even reportedly provided wrong information about the virus’s spread in Taiwan. …the U.S. — the WHO’s largest financial contributor, giving five times as much money as obligated… I will also work with my colleagues in Congress to review U.S. contributions to the WHO.

None of this is surprising. International bureaucracies are politicized, and their activities are designed and packaged in part to please the nations that provide funds (especially since the bureaucrats at places such as the WHO get lucrative tax-free remuneration and they don’t want to derail the gravy train).

I’ve made this same point when writing about how European welfare states, which dominate the membership of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, pushed the Paris-based bureaucracy into fighting against tax competition. So it’s not simply a China-specific problem.

The bigger issue is that the WHO, like almost all bureaucracies, has become sclerotic and self-aggrandizing.

For instance, it has sought to expand its power and budget by getting involved in lifestyle issues.

I’ve previously written about the WHO’s reprehensible efforts to harmonize tobacco taxation (including a column about the bureaucracy’s attempted censorship).

But that didn’t have any effect. A few years ago, the then-Director General of the WHO co-authored a column in the Washington Post extolling the bureaucracy’s attempts to dictate global tobacco taxation.

…tobacco taxes have already been formally endorsed by governments representing 90 percent of the world’s people, through a legally binding global treaty — the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control… The United Nations should encourage countries to raise tobacco taxes to support the world’s development goals.

Peter Suderman points out another bizarre example of WHO mission creep.

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified video game addiction as a mental disorder. …But now, with much of the global economy shuttered due to a pandemic, and health experts issuing increasingly strenuous recommendations for people to avoid leaving the house whenever possible, the WHO is encouraging people to stay home—and play video games.

And Matt Ridley authored a persuasive indictment of the WHO for the U.K.-based Telegraph, including a critique of the bureaucracy for getting involved in extraneous issues such as obesity and climate change.

There are three charges against WHO. First, it failed to prepare the world for a pandemic, spending the years since the Sars and ebola alarms talking more about climate change, obesity and tobacco… Second, once the epidemic began in China, WHO downplayed its significance… The third charge against WHO is that it has failed before. When the ebola outbreak in West Africa that was to kill 11,000 people began in late 2013, on its own admission WHO hindered the fight against the virus… WHO gives the impression it would rather reprimand rich countries for climate change or bad eating habits than worry about epidemics. It’s also a bit obsessed with celebrities. …On 28 March this year, Tedros found time to tweet about having had “a very good call with @ladygaga.” …It is an open secret among international diplomats and public health experts that WHO is “not fit for mission” (as one of them put it to me), riddled with politics and bureaucracy.

So what’s the bottom line?

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial aptly summarizes the situation, suggesting that it may be time to end subsidies for the WHO from American taxpayers.

The coronavirus pandemic will offer many lessons in what to do better to save more lives and do less economic harm the next time. But there’s already one way to ensure future pandemics are less deadly: Reform or defund the World Health Organization (WHO). …Much of the blame for WHO’s failures lies with Dr. Tedros, who is a politician, not a medical doctor. As a member of the left-wing Tigray People’s Liberation Front, he rose through Ethiopia’s autocratic government as health and foreign minister. After taking the director-general job in 2017, he tried to install Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador. …If WHO is merely a politicized Maginot Line against pandemics, then it is worse than useless and should receive no more U.S. funding. And if foreign-policy elites want to know why so many Americans mistrust international institutions, WHO is it.

I’ll close with an article for the Federalist by Richard Tren. He starts by acknowledging that the WHO did good work in its early days, but then sacrificed lives to appease a handful of rich donor nations.

Early in the organization’s history, when it was allowed to take a more paternalistic approach to disease control in poor countries, it recorded considerable progress against diseases such as river blindness, yaws, leprosy, polio, and malaria. …By the 1970s, however, there was a general move away from disease-specific programs and toward more holistic health programs. …this change of focus had disastrous consequences for malaria control. …The WHO’s global malaria eradication program, which it began in the 1950s and was largely based on the use of public health insecticides, …saved about 1 billion lives, which is a remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards. The move against insecticides and the focus on family planning meant the disease slowly started to reemerge. By the early 2000s, about 1 million people were dying of malaria every year. …wealthy donor countries, such as Sweden and Canada, kept pressure on the WHO to stop the use of these life-saving chemicals.

Interestingly, he concludes with a story about WHO bureaucrats admitting their employer should be shut down.

Several years ago, while visiting Geneva during the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly, I had a fascinating discussion with two long-term WHO staffers… The two, who shall remain nameless, had worked for the organization for many years in various locations around the world and knew the WHO well. In our conversations, I thought I would be criticizing the WHO and they would be defending it. Far from it. They described the backstabbing and the politics, both internal and external, which had frustrated their work and probably cost lives. “But surely we need something like the WHO to control things like global pandemics and other emergencies,” I said. “No,” they both responded. These long-standing public health professionals argued the world didn’t need the WHO, even when dealing with a pandemic. They believed it should be shut down. The Wuhan virus has shown that even during pandemics, the WHO will put politics ahead of public health.

I’ve had current and former OECD employees say the same thing, so I’m not surprised that some bureaucrats at the WHO have the same attitude.

It must be depressing to be a non-ideological professional and watch your organization get hijacked by those who care primarily about budgetary expansion and personal aggrandizement.

So if we ever get to that wonderful day when Washington puts an end to taxpayer subsidies for the OECD, maybe they’ll simultaneously defund the WHO as well.