The WHO Follies, Redux

Published June 12, 2020

On Monday, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging disease and zoonosis unit, said that transmission of COVID-19 from asymptomatic, infected patients to other persons was “very rare.” There was immediate and widespread pushback. For example, on Tuesday the Harvard Global Health Institute issued a statement, which said in part that “all of the best evidence suggests that people without symptoms can and do readily spread SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Van Kerkove’s statement was a particularly embarrassing failure of scientific communication, one of WHO’s primary responsibilities, because governments and public health officials worldwide have instituted lockdowns and issued guidance to socially distance and wear face masks in an effort, in part, to stop asymptomatic spread.

The day after Van Kerkhove’s misstatement, WHO convened a news conference to walk back her comments, stressing that much remains unknown. But the comment from Monday had already gone viral (pardon the expression) and been seized upon by those who believe that people do not need to wear masks or observe social distancing precautions.

Calling the controversy “a misunderstanding,” Van Kerkhove clumsily tried to perform damage control. “I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that,” she said. “We do know that some people who are asymptomatic, or some people who do not have symptoms, can transmit the virus on.”

U.S. and other government officials, health experts, and analysts have for months raised concerns about the WHO’s bungled response to the pandemic and accused it of being too trusting of the Chinese government, which initially tried to conceal the outbreak in Wuhan. Rather than taking Beijing to task for its initial attempts at a coverup, the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his “very rare leadership” and China for showing “transparency” in its response to the virus.

Taro Aso, Japan’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, went so far as to deride WHO as the “Chinese Health Organization,” because of what he described as its overly close ties to Beijing.  There is no question that the organization and its leader, “Dr. Tedros,” were inconceivably slow in declaring a global health emergency and, thereafter, a pandemic.

President Trump, too, has repeatedly criticized the WHO and has withdrawn U.S. funding and participation from the organization. Predictably, there has been condemnation of those actions, but we consider them to be justified. 

Although some sort of international overseer of global public health is critical to U.S. interests, the WHO, which has been largely underwritten by the U.S. government, has repeatedly failed us. The current pandemic is a final wake-up call that something needs to change.

American taxpayers have been the largest contributors to WHO’s approximately $2 billion budget. Like other U.N. organizations, the WHO is plagued by persistent wasteful spending, utter disregard for transparency, pervasive incompetence, and failure to adhere to even basic democratic standards.  Its Western Hemisphere subsidiary, the Pan American Health Organization, supports antidemocratic regimes seeking to destabilize legitimate governments, and actually weakening public health rather than strengthening it.

Why are incompetence and profligacy rife within the sprawling organization? In several respects, it’s in the United Nations’ DNA.

First, the U.N. is essentially a monopoly. Inefficiency and incompetence cannot be punished by “consumers” of their products or services spurning the U.N. and patronizing a competitor. On the contrary, it is not uncommon in these kinds of bureaucracies for failure to be rewarded with additional resources. Unlike in business, if a program isn’t working, government bureaucrats clamor to make it bigger.

Second, U.N. officials are rewarded for making the bureaucratic machinery run — that is, for producing reports, guidelines, white papers and agreements, and for holding meetings — whether or not they are of high quality or accurate. Often, they aren’t: The bureaucrats often sacrifice veracity for consensus.

Third, there’s neither accountability nor transparency. There’s no U.S. Government Accountability Office, House of Lords Select Committee, or parliamentary oversight, and no electorate to kick the U.N. reprobates out when they are dishonest or act contrary to the public interest.  

Finally, as illustrated by the selection of Dr. Tedros as Director-General of the WHO, the pool of candidates for U.N. leadership positions is not a promising one. The organization is no meritocracy: The country or region of origin of a candidate seems to be more important than his or her credentials and qualifications.   

Under WHO’s polio eradication policy in Syria, healthcare workers were allowed to work only with the brutal, corrupt regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but not in rebel-held areas. Thus, although WHO was effective in containing polio within government territory, the disease was able to spread throughout rebel areas.  In addition, the organization has been widely condemned for failing to raise the alarm about the dangers of Ebola in West Africa in 2014.

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which has repeatedly been plagued by incompetence and poor science, was at the epicenter of a major scandal marked by corruption and conflicts of interest. When a U.S. congressional committee attempted to investigate, IARC rebuffed the effort. 

Calls for Dr. Tedros to resign are insufficient. He isn’t the problem; he’s only the latest symptom of an irreversibly corrupt institution. 

The United States’ hugely disproportionate funding of U.N. activities — our mandatory assessment and voluntary contributions total some $8 billion — might soon be coming to an end.  Not a moment too soon.

[Originally posted at Issues & Insights]