Total deaths started to spiral in China from coronavirus and fear grew around the world, it was chosen as venue for the key meeting between President Xi Jinping and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Eight days earlier, Chinese authorities had finally admitted their mysterious new disease could be spread by humans – after initially detaining doctors who sought to alert citizens, covering up crucial data and rebuffing help from outside experts.
Yet during those crucial talks in late January, Xi insisted the state’s priority was the health of its people. ‘The epidemic is a devil,’ he declared. ‘We will not let it hide.’
Breathtaking words from the head of a United Nations body responsible for defending global health. But Tedros and his top officials have ceaselessly promoted China’s pretence that it is the hero of this cruel pandemic – not, as many argue, the villain.
AS THIS virus sparks global catastrophe, there are growing fears that the man leading a crucial international organisation heavily funded by the US and Britain is promoting Chinese interests.
‘It is pretty much clear he is a shield for Beijing,’ said a senior British Cabinet source. ‘His comments congratulating China for exemplary handing of the crisis are not borne out by the reality of events.’
Similar concerns are heard elsewhere, especially in the US. Republican senator Marco Rubio has said he is deeply disturbed how the organisation ‘parroted’ Chinese lies and accused Tedros of ‘favouritism’.
The Ethiopian, who has a doctorate in philosophy from Nottingham University, was previously a senior figure in one of Africa’s most repressive regimes which was strongly backed by Beijing.
He won the top job at WHO with support of China despite controversy over his time as Ethiopia’s health minister and contested claims about covering up cholera epidemics in the country in 2006, 2009, and 2011.
Tedros has also been condemned for seeking to honour the Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe.
Taro Aso, Japan’s deputy prime minister, is searing in his criticism. He savaged the WHO for its failure to protect public health and backing Beijing’s ‘spin’, concluding that it should be renamed the ‘Chinese Health Organisation’.
The cause of Aso’s anger was an incident nine days ago that exposed the extent of the WHO’s kowtowing to China and its flawed co-ordination of a rapid global response to this major public health threat.
It involved Bruce Aylward, a Canadian doctor and WHO assistant director-general who led its mission, when permitted, into Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus erupted, and who has since played a leading role in speaking to the media.
Aylward regularly extols China’s ‘aggressive response’ to the virus, which has even included welding people’s doors shut to lock them in their homes. He says the government ‘is really good at keeping people alive’ and that if he had Covid-19, he would want to be treated in China.
Yet this is the nation that failed to clamp down on wild animal markets widely blamed for fostering the new virus, despite having seen the seemingly similar emergence of SARS in 2002, and then thwarted efforts to contain the disease for several crucial weeks.
During this time, hundreds of millions of people were on the move for Chinese new year festivities and a public feast was held in Wuhan for 40,000 residents.
Aylward condemns those who see China as an ‘evil’ regime. Yet this is a Communist dictatorship that banned families from having more than one child, controls 1.4 billion citizens with a sophisticated surveillance system, murders religious practitioners to transplant their organs, and locks Muslim minorities in hellish prison camps.
China also refuses to recognise neighbouring Taiwan. So when a journalist asked Aylward during a video call about the island nation’s laudable response to the epidemic, he pretended not to hear and then seemed to hang up.
The reporter, Yvonne Tong, dialled back but the WHO official swept her aside, saying: ‘We’ve already talked about China – and when you look across all the different areas of China, they’ve done quite a good job.’
This could have been the craven response of a Beijing bureaucrat. Taiwan is, after all, a fiercely independent nation with freedoms and democracy enjoyed by its 24 million citizens that offer a glaring contrast to life in its giant autocratic neighbour.
‘Wow, can’t even utter ‘Taiwan’ in the WHO?,’ tweeted Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, in shocked response. China wants to re-absorb Taiwan, a refuge seven decades ago for the nationalist forces defeated by Mao’s communists.
Under President Xi, China has ramped up bullying of nations, firms or global organisations that show any support to Taiwan.
The WHO, like other UN bodies, appeases China to the extent that Taiwanese passport-holders are unwelcome in its buildings. Taiwan has been stopped from even attending the WHO’s influential assembly meetings as observers.
Other major global organisations slavishly toe Beijing’s line by excluding Taiwan. But amid the worldwide threat from coronavirus, this raises critical questions over whether international politics has hampered efforts to protect public health.
It seems the new virus first began appearing in Wuhan last November to the bafflement of local doctors. On December 31, China reported a cluster of pneumonia-like cases to the WHO.
On the same day, Taiwan tipped off the Geneva-based body that it had learned of medical staff in China falling ill – a clear sign of human-to-human transmission. Yet it said the information was not shared since the nation is excluded from a key WHO platform.
Chen Chien-jen, Taiwan’s vice-president and an epidemiologist, said the WHO’s failure to obtain first-hand information on human transmission led to crucial delay. ‘An opportunity to raise the alert level both in China and the wider world was lost.’
The WHO confirms receiving an email mentioning ‘news reports of atypical pneumonia reported in Wuhan, and that Wuhan authorities said they believed it was not SARS’ but denies there was any mention of medical staff falling ill.
There are suggestions Chinese authorities knew of human-to-human transmissions early in January, even as they detained doctors desperately trying to warn about a potential epidemic and accused them of spreading false ‘rumours’.
Taiwan sent its own team to Wuhan in mid-January after failing to obtain clarification through official channels, which confirmed human transmission.
There have also been credible claims on Chinese social media, repeated by online news reports, that an infected disease specialist in Wuhan alerted a senior WHO official in Asia because they had trained together and remained friends.
On January 11, a Chinese government respiratory expert who initially said the virus was ‘under control’ admitted he might have been infected in Wuhan.
Media reports show medical staff were being treated in hospital for symptoms by January 15. Yet on January 14, the WHO confidently told the world that ‘the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus identified in Wuhan’.
Three days later, a WHO official intimated it was being transmitted among humans, and this was eventually confirmed by China after three more days.
Tedros, the WHO’s director-general, finally confirmed coronavirus as a public health emergency of international concern after returning from his back-slapping trip to Beijing. By this time, the disease had already spread to 18 more countries on four continents.
Days later an Australian member of the WHO’s emergency committee broke ranks to call China’s response ‘reprehensible’, saying cases might have been restricted if it had not hidden data. There remain suspicions the true death toll in China is still being kept secret from outsiders.
Beijing reacted furiously as countries began closing borders to China. Its stance was supported by Tedros, who claimed the ‘small’ number of cases could be managed without extreme measures.
Now, of course, the pandemic has crashed the global economy and closed down dozens of countries.
Tedros has tried to defuse criticism with celebrity endorsement, discussing the pandemic last weekend with pop star Lady Gaga and tweeting thanks for ‘her continuing efforts to show compassion and kindness to the world’.
He boasted that she was ‘ready to support WHO in any way possible in the fight against Covid-19’.
So why would Tedros be so sympathetic to China? Perhaps it goes back to his time as a top Ethiopian politician. He served in senior roles under Meles Zenawi, who ran a brutal dictatorship with close ties to Beijing, which admired the regime’s authoritarian model of development.
Intriguingly, Tedros was accused of covering up three outbreaks of cholera during his seven years as health minister, although the claims were dismissed as dirty tactics to try to derail his bid to become the WHO boss.
Shortly after starting his new job with the WHO in 2017, he appointed Robert Mugabe as a ‘goodwill ambassador’, only to back down after furious protests from human rights groups pointing out the despot had devastated Zimbabwe’s health service while wrecking his nation.
Mugabe, as head of the African Union and a close ally of China, had helped him win the WHO post. Beijing also used its financial muscle to build support among developing nations, with Xi said to see the achievement as a sign of China’s growing strength.
Some US think-tanks have raised fears over China’s abuse of global bodies, as part of its mission to extend influence across the world – a strategy confirmed by Lianchao Han, a pro-democracy activist who once worked in China’s foreign office. ‘
At first they just wanted to participate to show they were a global power. Now China’s strength has increased, they want to dominate and direct global bodies to push their agenda and model of governance,’ he said.
This is not the first time WHO’s dismal response to a health crisis has damaged its reputation. Six years ago there was huge criticism of its pathetic reaction to the devastating ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people.
WHO took several months to acknowledge there was an international health emergency, even rebuking one charity that pleaded for help. Much of the fury centred on Tedros’s inept predecessor Margaret Chan, the first Chinese citizen to lead a UN body.
The British and US governments fund about a quarter of WHO’s $2.2 billion annual budget, while China gave $44.3 million last year.
The WHO has been criticised for spending more on travel than tackling some of the biggest health issues. Set up in 1948, it has huge responsibility, from curbing obesity to preparing for global emergencies, but like other UN organisations often struggles to balance rival national interests.
When I asked the WHO if Tedros or Aylward had defended the detained doctors in China, I was told to contact another UN body with a human rights mandate.
Tedros’s behaviour contrasts sharply with Gro Harlem Brundtland, a Norwegian predecessor who attacked China for similar attempts to cover up SARS.
But Tedros’s supporters say he is adopting a pragmatic approach and deserves plaudits for skilfully marshalling a global response to a pandemic.
A source in one funding body said: ‘It would have been easy in early days of this epidemic to cut up rough with China but they would have pulled up the drawbridge and shared less data, which is inimical to wider public health.’
Above all, this pandemic proves the world needs an effective and fearless health body, yet the existing one keeps failing.
Tory MP Bob Seely, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, says: ‘We are seeing the horrible damage that a pandemic can do while the WHO has soft-pedalled on China. If we want to protect the world against future pandemics, for the sake of everyone of the planet it is vital that we have a non-partisan WHO.’