China’s president Xi Jinping has announced a major $2bn funding initiative for Covid-19 response in his opening speech at the World Health Assembly – something the United States, disgruntled and having withdrawn funding from WHO, will have a hard time matching.
The pledge was among a number of new pledges by WHO member states, including Germany, to the epidemic response and WHO after the US government’s freeze of its payments, worth about $430 million for 2020 and 2021. The World Health Organization runs on a two-year budget cycle. For 2020 and 2021, its budget for carrying out its programs is $4.8 billion, or $2.4 billion per year.
The Chinese President said that the new initiative would include «green corridors» to fast track customs and ensure vital health supplies reach Africa, partnering with 30 major African hospitals, a debt suspension initiative, and the ramping up of a Covid-19 vaccine.
Xi defended his country's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, saying it has acted openly and responsibly in sharing information with the international community. He said that if China succeeds in developing a vaccine, it will share it widely.
«The vaccine when available, will be made a global public good, this will assure China’s contribution to assure vaccines accessibility,» said Xi, speaking in a web-broadcast statement at the first-ever virtual World Health Assembly. French President Emmanuel Macron, who also spoke just after China, also echoed Xi’s commitment on any forthcoming vaccine.
Significantly, China was the first «high level» speaker from a WHO member state to make an address at the opening of the Assembly, just after a welcome by WHO host country Switzerland.
China has previously resisted calls for a review of the origins of the coronavirus, which first spread widely among workers and visitors to a Wuhan wild animal market. But Xi said that Beijing would be open to an impartial evaluation of that question, and other issues related to the pandemic response once the pandemic is brought under control. President Xi told the virtual Assembly:
«This work needs a scientific and professional attitude, and needs to be led by the WHO. And the principles of objectivity and fairness need to be upheld»
The American response
Alex Azar, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary, took a very different tact, criticizing both WHO and China, without calling Beijing by name:
«At least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world. We saw that WHO failed at its core mission of information sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith.»
«One of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control, there was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives. The status quo is intolerable. WHO must change, and it must become far more transparent and far more accountable.»
As for China’s $ 2bn allocation, the US Health Secretary responded saying:
«We've been proud to allocate over US $9 billion to benefit the global Covid-19 response, including more than half a billion dollars to benefit the most at-risk countries.»
The US also called upon WHO member states to allow Taiwan to participate as an observer at the WHA, saying that Taipei would «bring a helpful perspective regarding their effective and exemplary response.» Prior to Azar’s remarks, the WHA had decided to set aside the contentious Taiwan issue at today’s virtual Assembly, and take it up later in the year, when the WHA plans to resume with a full agenda.
WHA Resolution on Covid-19 response
Before adjourning, however, WHO member states are set to overwhelmingly approve a European Union-led resolution on Covid-19 response, which now is co-sponsored by over 100 countries, including virtually all of Europe, except Switzerland; the African bloc; and leading countries in Latin America and Asia such as Chile, Mexico, and Brazil and India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
The resolution calls for the creation of a voluntary patent pool for future Covid-19 treatments and vaccines, and affirms support for a strong and «sustainably funded» WHO to confront the pandemic. However, the resolution also provides for an independent «stepwise examination of WHO’s response at the appropriate time» - a gesture to US and other countries that have complained that China delayed its reporting in the early days of the pandemic, and has failed to adequately research and pinpoint the original source of the coronavirus leap from an animal source to humans - which some critics also have suggested could have escaped from a nearby virus research laboratory.
In his remarks to the Assembly, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he would initiate an evaluation of the COVID-19 response «at the earliest possible moment». But he said the key lesson of the pandemic is already apparent:
«We don’t need a review to tell us that we must do everything in our power to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.»