The UN’s health agency has faced criticism in the past for overreacting and for moving too slowly in fighting epidemics, but it has rarely faced as much scrutiny as with the coronavirus pandemic.
The World Health Organization was deemed too alarmist when it faced the H1N1 epidemic in 2009 but five years later it was accused of dragging its feet in declaring an emergency over the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which would go on to kill more than 11,000 people.
After that debacle, the WHO reformed and created a rapid response unit that
has since helped to tackle two Ebola outbreaks in Democratic Republic of Congo.
And yet, the organisation is once again under fire, with critics saying it did not react quickly or strongly enough to the new coronavirus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, late last year.
The agency has been accused of delaying sounding the alarm for fear of
offending Beijing, for waiting too long to declare the COVID-19 outbreak a
global pandemic and for failing to coordinate a coherent international
Also, a consensus appears to be emerging on the need to close down public spaces to limit the spread but the WHO has given little guidance on these measures.
“WHO remains surprisingly silent and absent in all of these pragmatic questions,” Antoine Flahault, head of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, wrote in The Lancet medical review, asking: “Is there any orchestra conductor?”
‘Enemy of humanity’
However, other commentators have praised WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and his team for giving sound guidance, instead criticising countries for failing to heed the advice.
Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said the WHO’s reaction was “hard to fault”, adding that countries like South Korea that followed the advice to test, trace and contain have done better than others.
One of the central planks of criticism is that the WHO waited until March
11, when nearly 120,000 cases had already been registered, to declare the
outbreak a pandemic — a move that truly hit the accelerator on global efforts
to rein in the virus.
By that time, the virus, dubbed an “enemy of humanity” by Tedros, had already taken hold in Europe, which soon overtook Asia as the epicentre of the outbreak.
With a dearth of tests, shortages of protective gear for health workers and vital medical equipment like ventilators, health systems even in wealthy nations have been pushed to the breaking point.
In a bid to halt the spread of a pandemic that has already claimed more than 18,000 lives, more than 2.5 billion people worldwide are now largely confined to their homes and economies have largely ground to a halt, threatening a global recession.
Despite the chaos, and evidence that Chinese officials hid the crisis for weeks and stifled doctors trying to sound the alarm, the WHO has praised Beijing for its early response.
Joseph Amon, a professor of global health at Drexel University in the United States, told AFP it was a “clear mistake and set an early tone by WHO that the epidemic was perhaps not as severe and that the initial response was adequate”.
China told the WHO about an unknown form of pneumonia circulating in Wuhan on December 31, 2019.
Experts say that if the world had learnt of the problem weeks earlier it could probably have been reined in.