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WHO has a shot at redemption

Allan Jacob (Senior Editor)
allan@khaleejtimes.com Filed on July 2, 2020

The world agency's leadership clearly failed in providing clarity and guidance to governments during the initial stages of the outbreak

An unsolved riddle after six months is not a riddle anymore. It has mutated into a medical mystery whose origins must be probed and revealed as much time is being lost in the containment and control of the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) is preparing to send a new team to China where the virus first reared its head in late December. This is the second such visit after the first team was sent to China in February had trouble gaining access to the hotspot in Wuhan due to high levels of infections.
Six months is a rather long time for the world to come to grips with Covid-19 one might think. Critical clues could be lost when a WHO team lands in Wuhan where a wet market once stood. What they will find will be a sanitised area rid of the pandemic-causing pathogen. There is little clarity about the scope of the mission or the scientists who will be part of it but this is the first step in salvaging some evidence from the scene of the original outbreak.
Scientists claim the coronovirus has its source in horse-shoe bats that were sold at the market. The coronavirus does not sicken the winged mammal that could have passed the strain to another animal like a pangolin, a delicacy in some parts of the world, which then transmitted it to the human population.
After half a year of sounding warnings and becoming victims, humans have realised the pathogen is smart, it has a mind of its own and is liberal in its spread. Its zoonotic origins make it complex as it spreads more rapidly. But it's never too late to start probing again in a bid to get to the bottom of this mysterious pandemic.
The spread is more in liberal democracies in the West and in densely populated regions where administrations have failed in their containment efforts because the people believe they have been granted constitutional powers to think and act freely. With political leaders like US President Donald Trump goading them on, the virus has a free run.
But, there is no freedom from fear as WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus keeps raising the alarm levels to new highs every week. "The worst is yet to come," he thunders. The warnings, however, have only stoked fears among the masses stricken by what can be termed as a lockdown culture with society at a crossroads.
The world agency's leadership clearly failed in providing clarity and guidance to governments during the initial stages of the outbreak while it was ensnared in diplomatic scuffles with the US, and has been condemned for its conflicting directives.
The United States and Europe are, meanwhile, working to 'restructure' the agency, though the ultimate objective could be to reform the way it deals with member states. Calls for reforms, therefore, must be expedited after an investigation into the source of this pathogen is completed.
There are three instances when the WHO bungled and went by the book when it should have been proactive: In early January, it claimed there was limited human-to-human transmission; it delayed the announcement of the pandemic to February end and did not demand that countries snap aviation links and close borders to prevent people from flying out. It was also unclear if asymptomatic carriers were indeed spreading the disease. In January, the WHO was advising to only test people with symptoms until scientists in Italy, the second nation to be struck, said silent transmissions were happening, and the WHO revised its advisory in February.
The US under its populist president has taken a hardball approach to the functioning of the health agency that was founded when the dust from World War II had settled in 1948, reforms should begin once the agency reveals what transpired in the first epicentre.
The coronavirus has changed the rules of the human survival game from Wuhan to Wichita. Confrontation is ruled out and patience is advised until a vaccine is developed or some cure is found.
A WHO-led investigation into the source of the virus would restore confidence in the agency to some extent after its premature praise of China.
The US is the agency's largest contributor with 15 per cent of its $5.6 billion budget, according to 2019 figures; the EU chips in 11 per cent. This does not mean they have unfettered power over the agency or can exert undue influence, but the demand for transparency and accountability is justified in this climate of fear and uncertainty.
The WHO charter reads: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition."
This medical mystery needs a denouement. The suspense is killing; there is a sense of fear and dread. This trip to China could be both restorative as well as redeeming for the WHO and for millions who deserve answers on their road to recovery from the pandemic. - allan@khaleejtimes.com

author

Allan Jacob

A news junkie with an abiding interest in foreign affairs. I'm a keen follower and learner of the media and how it will pan out in the future when the common man and woman will themselves be journalists and not just sources of information. Lead a team of bright journalists who are driving the change and have their feet on the ground.


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