Dr. Dawg

WHO's on first

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Suddenly the World Health Organization has become everybody’s favourite target. Australia and our own Liberal leaders have joined in the pile-on. Prime Minister Trudeau sounded sensible enough a few days ago, but the Liberals have apparently caved at least to some degree to the tantrum-prone toddler in the White House.

From the margins to the mainstream, as the saying goes. Right-wing conspiracy theories about the global Covid-19 disease have abounded for weeks: it’s the gummint, or globalism, or non-whites, or (in its more fantastic versions) germ warfare, microwave radiation, a plot to inject us with microchips, und so weiter. Armed militias in the US are facing the virus with an array of heavy weaponry, as The Donald urges them to overthrow state governments that have locked their precincts down. The WHO is seen as part of the problem, and the “very stable genius” in the White House has just cut off funding to it in the midst of a global pandemic. Now, in more moderate language, our government is falling into line with the anti-WHO scapegoating, hindsight bringing everything into the usual sharp focus.

The WHO is a UN agency, and it is only as good as its information. Those two facts need to be underlined. China behaved from the beginning in its usual heavy-handed fashion, first disappearing medical personnel and journalists who spoke up about the dangers of the new virus, then locking the stable once the horse had departed, and finally dealing with that by building a larger stable around the horse. To be blunt, we can’t believe a word China says regarding their numbers of deaths and infections. But that was what WHO has been having to work with from the beginning.

Looking back, we now know that the WHO’s prudential caution, and the information that it had at its disposal, led it into errors of omission. It initially underestimated the lethality and virulence of Covid-19—but so did nearly everyone else. Ontario premier Doug Ford, before stepping up responsibly when the full dimensions of the crisis became apparent, was telling people to go enjoy March break. Trump was suggesting that the 15 then-identified cases would dwindle to zero.

How long ago all of that that seems now.

The attacks on WHO at this moment seem misplaced at best, disingenuous and irresponsible at worst. Take the Taiwan red herring, for example. Taiwan is not a member state of the UN: China is. As a UN agency, WHO deals with member states. It is not its role to get involved in arguments about the One China policy, or any other political disputes. Yet it is being excoriated for staying away from this sensitive issue: there have even been demands that WHO admit Taiwan as a member, and a senior Canadian WHO advisor has been sharply attacked for avoiding questions about it.

That’s latter-day Cold War foolishness, no matter how exemplary Taiwan’s approach to the pandemic has been. Dealing state-to-state with Taiwan would be like giving Quebec a seat at the WHO table in addition to Canada’s. Imagine how the Usual Suspects, joining this time with the Liberals, would react to that. Obviously, intelligent arguments could be made either way, in a vacuum: but it’s not up to the WHO to make them here, now, in this world of Realpolitik.

In addition, everyone has been learning as we go on, week after week. Naturally, positions have changed as more knowledge is acquired, on the wearing of masks, for example, or restrictions on cross-border travellers. The WHO, as noted, relies upon the information available to it, and its handling of the pandemic has evolved as more information arrived. To criticize it for not having had all of the answers in January is fatuous and dishonest. We still don’t have those answers in mid-April.

Finally, the WHO needs its teams on the ground, and their effectiveness is entirely dependent upon the goodwill of the host states. If that involves a little bowing and scraping, or at least a refusal to denounce the host governments, so what? Had this virus originated in the US, would it have moved things forward for the WHO to publicly castigate Donald Trump, however justifiable that might have been? The point is to get things done, under imperfect conditions. And, while hampered, the WHO is doing just that. Let them work.

[Note: Reader Peggy Mason has a first-rate piece on all this at the Ceasefire blog.]

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on April 21, 2020 1:20 PM.

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