Over the past 24 hours, the world has seen the largest-ever increase in new Covid-19 infections, with most of the 106,000 cases cases occurring in just four countries, warned WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday.
It was his first briefing to the press since the conclusion of the first-ever virtual World Health Assembly where the WHO DG was both pummelled by US President Donald Trump for allegedly mishandling the pandemic - and bolstered by a resounding endorsement of a Covid-19 Response plan by WHO’s 194 member states.
(Yes, even the United States signed onto the plan - albeit with reservations.)
The Director General’s response
The Director General never strikes back at a member state. He cannot. But his opening remarks at the post-WHA press briefing served as a response, of sorts:
“In the last 24 hours, there have been 106,000 cases reported to WHO – the most in a single day since the outbreak began. Almost two-thirds of these cases were reported in just four countries.”
What he didn’t say - but was plainly evident in the latest WHO Situation Report - was that the United States was leading the pack - with 45,251 new cases of coronavirus reported overnight.
Independent review finds WHO demonstrated “leadership”
In Tuesday’s message, Trump also said he would permanently cut funding to the organization within 30 days “if the World Health Organization does not commit to major, “substantive improvements,” including an independent investigation of its Covid-19 performance. A review of WHO’s response was in fact part of the WHA resolution approved on Tuesday.
On that point, as well, Dr Tedros already had an answer in hand. A report by an Independent Oversight Advisory Committee (IOAC) of WHO’s performance from January-April had been published just the day before, he said.
The report concluded that the “WHO has demonstrated leadership and has made important progress in its COVID-19 response” considering the “novel nature of this virus and persistent unknown factors.”
The report was authored by a former UK Department of Health Director General, Felicity Harvey, along with six other senior health policy leaders or advisors from Japan, Canada, Lebanon, India, South Africa, and the United States. It remains unclear if yet another review will be undertaken now, to respond to the US. However, the Oversight Committee recommended not:
“Conducting such a review during the heat of the response, even in a limited manner, could disrupt WHO’s ability to respond effectively.”
The committee did, however, warn against the “rising politicization of pandemic response”:
“No single Member State can hope to defeat this virus solely with the tools that exist within their own borders….“WHO cannot succeed without unified global political support during the next phases of the pandemic.”
Solidarity or not?
While many western countries have deepseated concerns with the transparency of China’s Covid-19 reporting and aspects of WHO’s performance, Trump’s attacks have been widely seen as an attempt to shift the blame for the spiraling number of US cases to someone and somewhere outside of the White House.
Also coloring the recent WHA was the deepening rift between the US and China over the Asian power’s growing geopolitical influence - in which the proxy debate was over Taiwan’s admission to WHA as an “observer” - finally deferred for a follow-up session planned later this year.
Amidst all of this, Tedros hailed the ‘unprecedented solidarity’ seen from member states at the WHA in endorsing the Covid-19 Response plan. That solidarity will be needed more than ever, as countries combat the pandemic now approaching 5 million cases worldwide.
It remains to be seen if the US will be moved in the same spirit of solidarity to support the WHO for the duration of the pandemic fight. And if solidarity can bridge the sharp divide between Washington and Beijing, which is determined to keep its ideological rival, the democratically-elected government of Taiwan, out of the global health arena.