Political clashes are making the pandemic worse, the director-general of the United Nations’ public health agency says.
(CN) — The head of the World Health Organization pushed back Monday against accusations by President Donald Trump that the global health agency withheld information from the United States and pointed out that U.S. officials embedded with the agency had first-hand knowledge of the coronavirus outbreak from the beginning.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said staff from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention work within his agency’s ranks and were given full access to the information coming out of China about the emergence of the new coronavirus.
“Having CDC staff means there is nothing hidden from the U.S. from day one,” Tedros said during a regular briefing at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. “For WHO it is open, we don’t hide anything.”
He added: “We want all countries to get the same message immediately because that helps countries prepare well and quickly.”
Last week, Trump froze funding for the WHO, a United Nations agency, and alleged it was guilty of favoring China and helped cover up the outbreak in Wuhan. The agency insists it did nothing of the sort and acted quickly to alert the world about the threat the new virus posed.
Trump ordered his administration to review the WHO’s response to coronavirus outbreak. China and the U.S. have traded accusations over the pandemic, including allegations that the virus was manufactured by their opponent.
Tedros is pleading for politicians to stop finger-pointing and turning the pandemic into a political battle.
“Don’t use this virus to score political punches: It is dangerous, it is like playing with fire,” Tedros said.
He said politicians in every country need to come together and put aside ideological differences for the good of humanity and to save lives. He said the virus will “exploit cracks” in countries and kill more people.
He said he was speaking out on political affairs because he believes political clashes are making the pandemic worse. Tedros is a former Ethiopian politician and health minister who became the head of the WHO with the backing of China and African nations.
“People say, ‘This is political, and Tedros, you are a technical organization, so don’t say it,’” Tedros said. “But if [the politics are] fueling the pandemic, then why shouldn’t I say it? The cracks between people, between parties, is fueling it.”
Political fights over the pandemic have erupted in numerous countries.
In the U.S. and Brazil, demonstrations against lockdowns have erupted. Trump has tacitly given support to protesters and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro even joined anti-lockdown demonstrators over the weekend, some of whom called for a military takeover of the country. In Europe, the pandemic has turned into the source of political fights over whether to lift lockdowns, how to overcome the economic damage and who is at fault for Europe’s lack for preparedness to handle a pandemic.
“If there is national unity, global solidarity,” Tedros said, “we can win the fight.”
The WHO’s role in the pandemic is under a lot of scrutiny with critics charging that it was too trusting of China in the first weeks of the outbreak.
Tedros and his staff fended off criticisms Monday.
Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the WHO, said the first notification of the virus came from Wuhan health officials, one of thousands of “signals” about possible outbreaks all over the world.
Tedros dismissed suggestions that Taiwan health officials warned the WHO in a Dec. 31 email that the new virus could be transmitted by humans, which Taiwan accuses China of hiding to downplay the severity of the virus.
Wuhan health officials notified the WHO of a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases on Dec. 31. Doctors in Wuhan were allegedly silenced when they raised alarms about the new pneumonia cases. The doctors believed they were seeing cases involving the reemergence of SARS, another respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus that emerged in 2002-2003 and spooked Asia.
By Jan. 9, Chinese doctors revealed that the outbreak in Wuhan was caused by a new coronavirus, but they said there was no evidence it was being transmitted between humans. However, on Jan. 20, China’s top respiratory disease expert announced that the virus was being passed between humans. On Jan. 30, the WHO declared the virus a global health emergency. With the virus continuing to spread and few countries taking action to stop it, the WHO declared it a pandemic on March 11.
Tedros insisted his agency warned the world about the danger of the new virus from the outset.
“We have been warning from day one this is a devil that everybody should fight and the solution we are proposing is that we need national unity, strong national unity, everyone fighting this,” he said. “Global solidarity… without it, trust me, the worst is ahead of us.”
“Hundreds of thousands dying is serious,” Tedros added. “Let’s say enough is enough.”
Worldwide, about 170,000 people have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and about 2.4 million people have been found infected.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.