(CN) — The head of the World Health Organization on Wednesday called on global leaders to “quarantine politicizing Covid” in a passionate and personal retort to U.S. President Donald Trump’s allegations that his agency was unduly influenced by China and botched the initial response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, defended his agency’s actions and said China and the United States need to work together in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
“Please quarantine politicizing Covid,” Tedros said during an online news conference from Geneva, the UN agency’s headquarters. “That’s how we are going to win.”
During his lengthy defense, he also revealed he’s received death threats and become the target of racist attacks. Tedros, a former Ethiopian health minister and malaria expert, was born in Eritrea.
With so many lives and livelihoods at stake, Tedros urged politicians to not use the pandemic as a means to score political points.
“This is not the one to use for politics, it’s like playing with fire,” he said. “Let’s not continue to play with fire, [the virus] is like bush fire, it continues to jump.”
He added that the virus will exploit cracks that open up between nations. “We will have many body bags in front of us if we don’t behave.”
Tedros was reacting to comments Trump made Tuesday blaming WHO for “missing the call” on the severity of the outbreak in China and being “China-centric.” Trump also threatened to withhold funding to the global health agency.
“They’ve been wrong about a lot of things,” he said during a White House news conference.
Trump alleged China covered up the initial outbreak and he suggested the WHO was complicit in not quickly warning the world about the threat the new virus posed.
Trump is no fan of international political bodies and since becoming president he has lashed out at several international agencies and pulled out of international treaties, including the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. In this case, the White House was told in a memo about the possible threat of a pandemic in late January, according to media reports.
“They missed the call, they could have called it months earlier,” Trump said about the WHO. “They should have known and they probably did know, so we’ll be looking into that very carefully.”
The president accused the WHO of being “biased towards China.”
He doubled down on his accusations at a White House press briefing Wednesday, during which the president criticized the WHO for a Jan. 14 tweet stating that Chinese authorities had found “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the novel coronavirus.
“The World Health Organization got it wrong,” Trump said Wednesday afternoon. “They minimized the threat very strongly.”
During that same briefing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. is “re-evaluating” its funding for the World Health Organization consistent with Trump’s campaign pledge to make sure the U.S. does not shoulder an unfair burden by paying more to fund such groups than other nations.
“We need to make sure not only the World Health Organization but every international organization that we take taxpayer dollars and give it to them for the benefit of America; we need to make sure it’s delivering on those taxpayer dollars,” Pompeo said.
Trump is not alone in criticizing the WHO’s response. The agency has been accused of giving Chinese authorities too much deference and not pushing China to be more open about the new coronavirus.
In December, as China began investigating the first outbreak in the industrial city of Wuhan, Chinese authorities silenced doctors who were warning about the emergence of a viral pneumonia.
In January, as the outbreak worsened in Wuhan, China downplayed the severity of the virus and described it as “preventable and controllable.” It also declared that there was no evidence the virus was passing from one human to another with ease. Initially, the WHO said it concurred with Chinese authorities.
China also prevented an international team of experts from traveling to Wuhan to investigate the outbreak, only allowing them into the infection zone in mid-February.
The WHO also has been criticized for not calling the outbreak a pandemic until March 11. However, the agency declared it an international health emergency — its highest alert level — on Jan. 30, a week after China closed off Wuhan to contain the spread of the virus.
On Wednesday, Tedros portrayed his agency as effectively and quickly responding to the outbreak while “working day and night.”
He said WHO notified the world about the outbreak on Jan. 5 and issued guidelines on detecting, testing and managing the virus on Jan. 10. By Jan. 22, he said his agency had convened an emergency committee involving experts around the world.
He suggested that China initially was unsure how dangerous the virus was.
“There are many unknowns and we don’t know how [the virus] will behave in the future,” he said.
Tedros also urged the U.S. and China to set aside their differences and work together in fighting the virus, just as the U.S. and the former Soviet Union did in the 1960s in tackling smallpox, which was killing about 2 million people each year.
“Even during the Cold War the two powers agreed to fight smallpox together and brought the rest of the world together,” he said. “The United States and China should come together and fight this dangerous enemy.”
“Unity is the only option to defeat this virus,” he added.
Tedros acknowledged that his agency has made mistakes and he said it will review its actions, but now the focus should be on the pandemic.
“There will be a time when all players will see what they have done well and what they have screwed. Not just WHO, all players,” the director-general said.
“If we care about our people, if we care about our citizens, please work across party lines, across ideologies, across beliefs,” he said. “We don’t want to waste time.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.