The World Health Assembly began today. China’s president sounded conciliatory, but find out what his speech didn’t cover.
When I was a teenager back in the 1970s, the WHA meant the World Hockey Association. It was an ill-fated coalition of teams challenging the monopoly of the National Hockey League.
This week, we’ll be hearing from a more critical WHA. The World Health Assembly will be meeting online, and the pandemic will be at the top of the agenda.
If my newsfeeds on social media are any indication, a lot of people are worked up and agitated about the origin of the coronavirus. As with all aspects of the pandemic, all sorts of unconfirmed rumours and conspiracy theories are circulating, and they’re at least as contagious as the virus itself.
Suspicions that Labs Unleashed the Virus as a Bioweapon
The notion that COVID-19’s origin has something to do with 5G cellphone technology seems to be dying down. In its place, suspicions that government laboratories unleashed the virus as a bioweapon are making the rounds.
The scientific journal Nature Medicine published an article back in March by an international team of experts who shared conclusive evidence that humans didn’t engineer the COVID-19 virus in a laboratory.
The team also showed that the virus is tellingly similar to viruses found in horseshoe bats and pangolins. These animals are indigenous to China, but not to North or South America.
Wuhan Outbreak Arose Naturally in Mainland China
This strongly implies that, not surprisingly, the Wuhan outbreak arose naturally in mainland China. Still, even if we rule out the bioweapon notion, the world has a couple of unanswered questions for Chinese authorities.
So, it’s timely that the 73rd World Health Assembly starts today. Its Executive Board typically holds the WHA in Geneva, but nothing gets done in the usual way these days.
Instead, they’ve organized it by videoconference for the first time. The board also cut it down to two days.
Governing Body of the World Health Organization
The World Health Assembly is the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO). It consists of delegates from each of the 194 member states.
The WHA meets once a year to talk about WHO priorities, leadership, and budgets. They set new global health goals for the year ahead and decide who is going to do the work needed to accomplish each goal.
This year, just about everything at the meeting revolves around COVID-19. Delegates from each member state will make statements on the pandemic, give progress reports, and share information.
“We Have Seen Some Solidarity but Very Little Unity”
As readers know, the response to COVID-19 has been frustrating. United Nations Chief Antonio Guterres didn’t mince words in his opening remarks. “We have seen some solidarity, but very little unity in our response to Covid-19.”
Without naming names, the Secretary-General went on to say, “Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory, strategies and we are all paying a heavy price.”
Apart from the official agenda, a group of member countries had some other, less formal, objectives on their minds leading up to the meeting. They were looking at China’s conduct throughout the coronavirus outbreak.
“Impartial, Independent and Comprehensive Evaluation”
The EU and Australia were circulating a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international health response to COVID-19. They, and 122 countries supporting the resolution, wanted China to come clean on how the outbreak happened in the first place.
Chinese president Xi Jinping was the first speaker as the online conference began. He had rejected calls from the US and Australia for investigations into how Chinese authorities handled the outbreak.
This morning he seemed to be trying to head off the EU/Australia resolution. He defended China’s response to the outbreak, saying,” All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility.”
“Acted With Openness, Transparency and Responsibility”
He reiterated, “We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion. We have released the genome sequence at the earliest possible time.”
Also, without naming names, Xi told the assembly that, “China calls on the international community to increase political and financial support for WHO so as to mobilize resources worldwide to defeat the virus.” Readers will be aware that the White House cut off funding to the WHO while the pandemic was at its peak in the US.
Later in his presentation, he told the assembly that “China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 after it is brought under control to sum up experience and address deficiencies.”
“Led By The WHO and Conducted Objectively”
Xi went on to say, “The work should be based on science and professionalism, led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and conducted objectively and impartially.” So, it seems as though China is responding to international criticism by opening up to the idea of investigating the outbreak’s source.
Mind you, he’s not in any hurry. Notice that the pandemic review that Xi envisions is to take place, “after it is brought under control.” That could take months or even years.
Xi also promised to provide US$2 billion for COVID-19 support over the next two years. The money will also fund development aid in developing countries affected by the pandemic.
“Impartial, Independent and Comprehensive Evaluation”
Later in the day, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom responded to the controversy, saying, “We welcome the proposed resolution before this Assembly, which calls for a step-wise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation.”
This came as no surprise. Dr. Tedros has always said that the pandemic calls for an investigation.
Seeming emboldened by China’s new stance, he went on to say, “I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment to review experience gained and lessons learned, and to make recommendations to improve national and global pandemic preparedness and response.”
He Didn’t Commit to Showing the Samples from the WIV
Here’s what Xi didn’t commit to do. He didn’t commit to showing the world the samples from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) of the coronaviruses they were studying.
He also didn’t commit to sharing COVID-19 samples taken at the seafood market for comparison. In other words, he didn’t promise to prove that the virus didn’t escape from the WIV.
More Intent of Saving Face than Saving Lives
We’ve pointed out before that China seems to be more intent on saving face than on saving lives. Xi’s latest pronouncements don’t change our assessment.
The motherhood statements about global cooperation and the funding Xi offered seem like a public relations exercise. It’s unclear why Chinese authorities are so intent on withholding information about the earliest days of the outbreak.
Let’s assume that a young intern did inadvertently let the virus escape from the WIV as an unconfirmed report suggests. That’s nothing to be proud of, but these things happen.
Coverup More Damaging than the Original Misconduct
In most scandals, the coverup is far more damaging than the original misconduct. Whether the outbreak started in nature or through negligence, China has a moral obligation to let the world know how this happened and what it plans to do about it.
That’s the only way we’ll prevent a similar pandemic from happening again. Both China and the United States are wasting their time pointing out who went wrong when what matters is what went wrong.
Despite Xi’s conciliatory tone and generosity, humanity still needs China to explain how this pandemic began. At this point, there’s no appetite for making China a pariah over any lapses.
We Can Learn from Our Mistakes Going Forward
Dr. Tedros put it this way, “We do not need a review to tell us that we must all do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again.”
All the world wants is to understand what lapses took place. Then, we can all learn from our experience going forward.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2
The WHO and the WHA: An Explainer
Resolution: COVID-19 Response
Remarks to the World Health Assembly
Speech by President Xi Jinping at opening of 73rd World Health Assembly
WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the World Health Assembly
UN Peacekeeping – 8 Point Plan to Build “Beacon of Hope”
COVID-19 Opportunity Squandered Because of Denial
Origins of COVID-19: Lies, Damned Lies and the Truth