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WHO: 'Independent evaluation' of pandemic response to come

May 18, 2020

In a video address, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the coronavirus crisis would be overcome if the world works together. The WHO director said the group would investigate its pandemic response as soon as possible.

Ukraine WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Gonchar

The European Union called for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the global response to coronavirus, during the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first-ever virtual World Health Assembly on Monday afternoon.  

WHO chief Tedros Adhanon Ghebreysus said the meeting was "one of the most important since we were founded in 1948," as the health agency has garnered widespread attention over its handling of the pandemic which has infected more than 4.7 million people and killed over 315,000. 

Ghebreyesus later announced there would be an independent probe into his agency's performance and the broader international response during the pandemic.

"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 said.

The UN agency has been heavily criticized by US President Donald Trump, who accused it of pro-China bias. The US suspended funding to the WHO last month. China's President Xi Jinping said that Beijing was in favor of an independent probe, but only once the disease was "brought under control." 

Addressing the summit on Monday, Ghebreyesus said that "every country and every organization must examine its response and learn from its experience."

Opening remarks

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the event, lamenting that a number of countries had ignored the recommendations of the WHO.

"Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory, strategies and we are all paying a heavy price," he said.

In a video address, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that international cooperation was the only way to forge a path forward. "No one country can solve the crisis alone," she said. "We must act together."

She said she was "convinced" a solution could be found, and would be found much quicker if the "world works together." She emphasized, however, that any solution must be accessible and affordable for everyone.

The chancellor further stressed the need for a better early warning system. It has been widely reported that officials in the Chinese city of Wuhan knew in late 2019 that the situation was becoming dire, but were too nervous to tell national authorities until the situation was already out of hand. Beijing has been accused of initially trying to suppress information about the coronavirus through early 2020.

China pledges fresh funds, developing economies call for debt relief

China pledged to give $2 billion (€1.85 billion) to fight the pandemic and mitigate its economic fallout, President Xi Jinping said on Monday. The money would be paid out within the next two years.

In apparent response to criticism from the US, Xi said China had shared its information on the virus "in most timely fashion."

"We have shared control and treatment experience with the world without reservation," Xi said. "We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need."

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley called for debt relief during the pandemic.

Addressing the virtual summit, the prime minister said that CARICOM — the bloc of 15 Caribbean nations including Jamaica, Haiti, and Bahamas — would need debt restructuring or a moratorium.

Mottley warned that without it, there could be a "disorderly unraveling" that would prompt a crisis in the global financial system.

Read more: Opinion: The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining health crisis of our time

What else is on the agenda?

A key outline of a proposed COVID-19 response, backed by 122 countries including the European Union member states, the UK, Russia and Canada, calls for WHO members to address the needs of vulnerable populations faced with the pandemic and its subsequent effects, global access to sufficient healthcare, adherence to international law and humanitarian standards, and the needs of frontline healthcare workers.

The paper urges the implementation of national action plans that utilize "time-bound, age- and disability-sensitive and gender-responsive measures across government sectors" and ensure "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, paying particular attention to the needs of people in vulnerable situations."

The countries will also address how to take steps to protect people from financial hardship, and prevent "insecurity, violence, discrimination, stigmatization and marginalization." Additionally, members will discuss the impacts of limitations on freedom of movement, access to information and safe testing.

The EU has drafted a resolution calling for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the collective global response.

The dispute over Taiwan

Taiwan's status as an observer of the assembly will also be on Monday's conference agenda. Taiwan was invited to attend the assembly as an observer for several years, until 2016, when President Tsai Ing-wen stepped into her role. Tsai refuses to recognize the concept that Taiwan is part of China, and the UN does not recognize Taiwan as a member state. 

Taiwan blocked from WHO meeting

However, Taiwan was one of the first countries to implement serious measures to combat the virus, with its very early response resulting in just 440 reported cases and a death toll of seven. Critics say that had the WHO included Taiwan's recommendations in its own response, the organization could have more rapidly curbed the spread of the virus. 

Daniel Lu, a Taiwanese former delegate to the World Health Assembly, told DW that politics should not hamper efforts to tackle public health issues. 

"We need to look beyond the politics," he said. "Health is more important than anything else. We need to look at health as a fundamental human right. It should be considered above political issues."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the WHO of playing politics "while lives are at stake" and succumbing to Chinese pressure by not including Taiwan. Pompeo called out WHO chief Ghebreysus over a "lack of independence" and said his decision hurt the WHO's "credibility and effectiveness."

Read more: How has Taiwan kept its coronavirus infection rate so low?

Nearly 15 countries, including Belize, Guatemala, the Marshall Islands and Honduras have called on Tedros to include Taiwan as a participant. Member states could vote on the island nation's inclusion. However, it is unlikely that Beijing, which holds a deciding vote in the measure, will vote in favor of Taiwan. Additionally, Taiwan has said that it will wait until later in the year, when meetings can be longer and the virus is better contained, to press for its participation in the assembly. 

International pressure and strained relations

While the WHO is the primary organization coordinating the global response to the virus outbreak, the group has been met with international criticism and has found itself at the center of tense global relations. In April, the United States froze funding to the WHO, for what US President Donald Trump called "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus."

Read more: What does Trump's funding freeze mean for the WHO?

Trump argued that the organization had been complicit in China's alleged misreporting of virus cases, and was too slow to investigate the outbreak. The organization has faced budget cuts in recent years, however, the US suspension of funding has dealt the biggest blow to the WHO, as the US was its biggest single donor, contributing almost a fifth of its total budget. 

Trump also threatened to "cut off the whole relationship" with China, in an interview with Fox News on Thursday. The rocky relationship between the two global powers could prove to complicate efforts to implement a coordinated global response. 

Read more: US could cut ties with China over coronavirus, ‘save $500 billion': Trump

The WHO under fire in the pandemic

What is the World Health Assembly?

The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of WHO. It is attended by delegations from all WHO member states and focuses on a specific health agenda prepared by the executive board. The main functions of the assembly are to determine the policies of the organization, appoint the director-general, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed program budget.

The assembly is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland, and is normally three weeks long. However, the conference was shortened to just two days this year.

lc, dj/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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