The United States’ attack on the World Health Organization stood in stark contrast to pledges of global solidarity made by other countries during an annual health assembly.
(CN) — In an escalating fight with China, the United States on Monday attacked the World Health Organization for what it called failures that “cost a lot of lives,” an accusation that cast a shadow over a global health assembly seeking to bring countries together as the world tackles the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. attack was launched during the World Health Assembly, an annual gathering of health ministers and world leaders from the 194 nations that make up the WHO, the United Nations health agency coordinating efforts to end the pandemic. Because of the pandemic, the two-day meeting is being held virtually with speakers connected via computer to the Geneva headquarters of the WHO.
“There was a failure by this organization to obtain information that the world needed, and that failure cost us many lives,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar.
His line of attack was not new and comes after U.S. President Donald Trump froze funding to the WHO in April and accused it of working with China to cover up the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. The U.S. alleges the virus escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, but it has provided no evidence to back up its claims. Striking back, China has suggested the U.S. created the virus in one of its laboratories and it is trying to build a scientific argument that the virus originated outside China.
Before Azar’s attack, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to the assembly and defended his nation’s actions while also pledging $2 billion to fight the pandemic. By pledging that sum, China appears interested in getting plaudits for filling the gap left by the U.S. after it froze WHO funds.
“All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility,” Xi said in a video link. “We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion.”
He said China released the genome sequence of the virus “at the earliest possible time” and shared its knowledge on how to treat the disease “without reservation.”
Xi also said China will back a “comprehensive review” of how the world responded to the pandemic. He said the review must be done with science and impartiality.
This was an apparent concession to the U.S. and its allies, in particular Australia, that have been calling for an independent international investigation into the origins of the virus.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said his agency welcomes an independent evaluation.
Although it was not a new attack, Azar’s brief speech was in stark contrast to the tone set by nearly all other countries – including China – at the World Health Assembly.
With the opening of the assembly late morning Monday, representatives from around the world were beamed up on screens and pledged unwavering support for the WHO, praised its leadership and pledged solidarity in the fight to tackle the pandemic.
One after another, heads of state and health ministers concurred: The pandemic is humanity’s worst crisis in decades and the world must come together in a common fight against a common enemy, a microbe bringing the world to its knees.
“Covid-19 must be a wake-up call,” said Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general.
“Despite the enormous scientific and technological advances of recent decades, a microscopic virus has brought us to our knees,” he said.
He said the pandemic had exposed “global fragility” and shown that it was “time for an end to this hubris” of not dealing with the world’s pressing problems of climate change, nuclear disarmament and cybersecurity.
“Deadly global threats require a new unity and solidarity,” Guterres said.
He faulted countries for not heeding WHO’s advice about the dangers of the virus and failing to take steps to stop its spread. The UN secretary-general did not point fingers, but he appeared to be alluding to rich European countries and the U.S., which were the first regions to suffer outbreaks outside Asia. Leaders in Europe and the U.S. did not initially take the threat of the virus seriously even after the WHO declared an international health emergency on Jan. 30.
Guterres praised the WHO as “irreplaceable” for its work around the globe in helping developing countries fight infectious diseases, such as Ebola in Congo, and he called on global leaders to spend more on WHO so it can help poorer nations during the pandemic.
“We are as strong as the weakest health systems,” Guterres said. “Protecting the developing world is not a matter of charity or generosity but a question of enlightened self-interest. The global north cannot defeat Covid-19 unless the global south defeats it at the same time.”
In a nod to the finger pointing between the U.S. and China, he said an investigation into the pandemic will need to be done to prevent another pandemic. But he said such a probe needs to take place after the crisis.
There will be a “time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis,” Guterres said. “But now is not that time. Now is the time for unity, for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences.”
The Chinese president went along with this tone and talked about “love and compassion,” “working together,” “international cooperation” and helping the poorest nations, such as those in Africa. He said China will help ease customs to free up supply chains, support debt relief for poorer countries and help ensure vaccines against the virus are distributed around the world.
During the pandemic, China has sought to spin a narrative that it is a global force for good as it helps the world combat the virus by sending doctors, supplies, equipment and experts to countries in need. For example, Chinese doctors and experts arrived in Italy shortly after its outbreak began, a move that preceded assistance from the European Union.
But China has also come under fire from a growing number of countries who support the U.S., including those in Europe. China allegedly silenced doctors in Wuhan who were speaking out about the virus. Also, some scientists believe the virus may have emerged from a wet market in Wuhan where wild animals were sold and critics blame China for not doing more to regulate the trade of those animals.
Still, during the assembly, criticism of China, an authoritarian regime ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, has been muted.
French President Emmanuel Macron said this was “a moment for unity and solidarity.”
“We need a strong WHO to tackle Covid-19,” he said.
While facing discontent and political turmoil at home, Macron has become a global face of leadership during the pandemic and he is spearheading efforts to ensure vaccines against Covid-19 are distributed at cheap prices around the world.
He too said an investigation into the pandemic was necessary, but he warned against “unfounded accusations,” an apparent jab against the U.S. and China for floating conspiracy theories about the virus being manufactured at rival labs.
And on it went speaker after speaker: Calls for unity, for sharing resources, for global leadership and moral leadership, for compassion, debt relief for the poorest, caring for the most neglected and vulnerable.
“We have been humbled by this very small microbe,” Tedros, the WHO chief, said. “If this virus is teaching us anything, it is humility.”
He repeated a defense he has been making for weeks that his agency warned the world early about the dangers posed by the virus. He welcomed an investigation into the pandemic and said the world needs to make the world’s health systems better prepared for future threats.
“What sort of world do we want? And what sort of WHO do we want? The answer to the first question will determine the answer to the second question,” he said. “Now, more than ever, we need a stronger WHO. There is no other way forward than together.”
As the meeting wore on, some cracks appeared. Iran’s health minister blamed the U.S. for making the outbreak in Iran worse by maintaining sanctions on Iran during the pandemic. Australia called for an investigation into wet markets.
Still, it was mostly a feel-good session for the 73rd World Health Assembly at a time of global crisis.
Finally, someone from the United States – the world’s foremost superpower – was given the virtual floor. When heads of state spoke at the opening of the assembly, no one from the U.S. was represented.
Azar appeared in front of a blue background – and the assembly’s tone suddenly changed. He launched into his political attack.
“The status quo is intolerable” at WHO, he said, an apparent jab at Tedros, who became the WHO leader with the backing of China.
He then suggested the organization worked with China “in an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak.”
He also demanded that Taiwan be allowed to attend the World Health Assembly. China has objected to Taiwan’s participation in any UN bodies and it has used its power to keep Taiwan out of the WHO and other UN institutions. Taiwan is involved in expert consultations with the WHO. China stakes a territorial claim to Taiwan. Since the coronavirus outbreak, China and Taiwan have sparred. Taiwanese officials have claimed China hid the outbreak.
“Although we are all focused on the immediate response,” Azar said, “we need a more effective WHO right now to help win this fight and demonstrate to our citizens that we are working to prevent such catastrophes in the future.”
He concluded: “The United States sends our best wishes that open an offer of cooperation to each of you in our shared efforts to defeat this pandemic and to protect the health of each nation around the world.”
That was it. Azar was gone. The U.S. had provided no stirring words of compassion, togetherness, or solidarity, and it made no commitments. It was a brief, but biting, illustration of the very frosty relations between the Trump administration and world institutions.
A silence ensued. The assembly’s moderator carried on with the surreal virtual meeting.
“Thank you very much. We will now invite Nigeria, followed by Honduras,” the moderator said, sitting in a near-empty chamber of the WHO. Due to the pandemic, only a few political representatives were in attendance, sitting far away from each other.
“Nigeria you have the floor please …”
Silence. “Nigeria, are you with us?”
Another video link had failed during this attempt to hold a World Health Assembly virtually. All day, video links had been failing.
“Could we kindly move to Honduras to be followed by Zambia?”
The Honduran health minister appeared and she quickly reset the tone by talking about helping poorer countries and finding global solutions.
“My country is pleased to participate in this 73rd World Health Assembly, an assembly which is certainly out of the ordinary and which is taking place in times when solidarity and cooperation among countries are more necessary and indispensable than ever,” she said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.