Trumpian bombast in cutting off WHO funding is the right shot across the bow
Containment of COVID-19 in the Hubei province of China was overwhelmingly successful on paper. Even with the most recently announced the surge, the birthplace of the novel virus saw about 1 in 1000 infected, just over thirty- two hundred people dead. Elsewhere in China, another twenty-five thousand people tested positive, and less than fifteen hundred more people died because of it. In comparison, the US just crossed forty thousand death count, and over three-quarters of a million infected.
Weeks of lockdown in China saved more lives from automobile accidents at its run-rate than a total number of people died there because of the pandemic. Commendable? Maybe. But, totally unbelievable.
The Economist magazine compared Chinese reported incidents with data from comparable economic situations around the world and noted that Chinese numbers seemed to fluctuate with internal purges and political shenanigans. American Enterprise Institute estimated China may have had 2.9 million total cases, higher than total number of reported cases worldwide as of today. Even with case fatality rates at the low end of experience elsewhere, reported number undercounts reality by at least 75%.
Some clarity is beginning to emerge in this fog. Wuhan authorities may have known something is amiss as far back as in September, but chose to punish citizens for “spreading rumor”, including the Doctor, since victim of the disease, who blew the whistle. China waited for seven weeks, at least, before sharing genome data, shut down the lab that first published genome study for “rectification” the very next day; an absolute censorship exists within China for publication of any COVID-19 related research even today. Visiting international teams were prevented from speaking to infectious ward doctors while continuing to claim no human to human transmission. Now China’s propagandists, including very senior government officials, are hard at work blaming the US. It increasingly looks likely that a Wuhan based virology lab may have played a role, knowingly or not. Even if we buy the original claim that a wet market in Wuhan was responsible, credible news sources confirm that wet markets are back in action as China opens up. China’s deliberate actions may have spread the virus abroad – it closed international travel weeks after restricting domestic travel; thus, let the virus spread freely, including to Italy and the US. The Wall Street Journal summarized ground reality as follows: “Just as in December China’s official culture of secrecy unleashed a terror in the world, so now that same culture weighs down the world’s efforts to cope”.
It is understandable why the Communist Party would want a fog of misinformation. Commendable as the lifting of close to half a billion people from poverty is, for seven decades the Party still embodies a governance machine that reverts to deception whenever its legitimacy is questioned. Legitimacy, based on twin pillars of technocratic competence and higher prestige abroad, was questioned by this pandemic. The CCP has resorted to hyper-nationalism, long its weapon of choice, as it is trying hard to blame the world; it does not surprise anybody who grew up in the shadows of the Dragon and thus can attest to its long claws and the venom for anybody who is not them.
The World Health Organization toed the Chinese lines well into the pandemic. Last week Reason magazine published a blow-by-blow account of how WHO toed Chinese lines and resisted early calls to arms from neighboring Taiwan, bete noire of the mainland. Taiwan saw signs late last year, attempted to warn the world through our designated guard for health issues globally – WHO. WHO functionaries repeated Chinese assurances that virus was not a concern, that there was no need to wear masks, and, most importantly China is being transparent in its dealings. It was funny, and repulsive, to see how WHO reps would literally go on mute when probed about Taiwan’s aggressive response early on, something they pooh-poohed before being forced to reverse themselves. Assurances of Chinese cooperation continue even today, even as it is evident that reality is anything but.
Alone with the authority to declare “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” [PHEIC, ironically pronounced as “fake”], WHO did have some stellar successes – including against Smallpox, polio, and, recently against Ebola, HIV/AIDS awareness, against malaria and tuberculosis, especially in developing world; we all are grateful for the millions of lives saved.
History of success also hides decades of mission creep culminating in a bureaucratic maze that forgets nonperformance in a key mandate “detect and respond to acute health emergencies”. By failing to probe deeper, and, instead, choosing to take CCP at its word, WHO ended up acting as its mouthpiece and worse, in shutting down or ignoring Taiwan’s call to arms. This is not the first however; in 2003, at the behest of China, WHO did not declare PHEIC in relation to SARS. It is argued that COVID-19 may be a mutated version of the same making WHO’s choices even more loathsome.
WHO played into the Chinese hands. It is time for the US to take back control of WHO and provide it with teeth.
Trumpian bombast in cutting off funding of WHO might be the shot across the bow we need now. It threatens WHO’s existence and thus forces a rethink of mission creep and lax monitoring of pandemic outbreaks. Member countries are forced to recognize that China’s largesse comes at a human cost. It will force the world to choose, and very likely current WHO leadership pliant to Red bosses will be shown the door. In trying to deflect blame from China for COVID-19 crisis, WHO leadership let the cat out; starting a chain-reaction for much needed reform inside the organization.
Elsewhere, we should do the same with other UN organizations. I have argued in these pages that the correct way to deal with China is through a framework of “containment” through competition. Decades of “engagement” did not work, or, worked to our detriment as COVID-19 demonstrates; the only outcome acceptable for China is hegemony. China’s neighbors long learned to recognize naked adventurism in Chinese largesse; a port is only intended as a port of call for the Chinese navy, a Belt and Road is just a tool to tie impoverished people with obligations while moving money from one state-controlled entity to another. Current ethos of a transactional mindset in diplomacy does not help either as China knows the long game inside out.
China lacks soft powers of moral compass, ideals of liberty and individual freedom, and, an embrace of diversity in its peoples and life’s choices, including religion. The world needs to realize China is no substitute for US leadership and Chinese bribe comes with a heavy price. In lives lost. In servitude. In turning a blind eye on internment camps with millions. In being a co-conspirator in loss of individual freedom and rights of free speech everywhere.
If China wins this battle, the free world loses.
[Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA is an entrepreneur in Water technologies, Blockchain and Wealth Management in US and India. All opinions are of the Author alone, and do not necessarily represent that of any organization he may be part of. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission]