The World Health Organization Is Not Salvageable | Opinion

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has corrupted the World Health Organization (WHO), under the leadership of Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The WHO pursued politics over public health by helping Beijing spread disinformation about the outbreak and excluding Taiwan and its wealth of knowledge about the disease. American decision-makers should respond by either pushing China out of any serious role at the WHO or constructing a new agency to take its place.

A mass of evidence shows that Beijing became aware of the danger of the coronavirus outbreak in December 2019, if not earlier. The regime did not react by notifying the WHO and other nations of the potential for an outbreak of a highly communicable disease. Instead, it silenced the brave Chinese doctors who raised the alarm, shut down laboratories investigating the virus' origins and suppressed Chinese reporters and writers publicizing the events. The CCP further proceeded to falsify information about the spread of the disease and the lives lost, provided spurious reassurances to world leaders and blocked foreign scientists and officials from access to Wuhan.

The communist government deliberately kept the rest of the world in the dark. It denied and minimized the extent of the outbreak, kept travel between China and other countries open and allowed travelers to spread the virus to unwitting nations long after its leadership knew of the profound health risks. Even well-informed public health experts in the U.S. and elsewhere, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, were lulled into a false sense of security because China concealed vital information about the disease.

China's pattern of concealment, delay, obfuscation and outright lying caused irreparable harm to the rest of the world. Despite knowing of the nature, infectiousness and lethality of the disease, China's government did not begin to quarantine the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic had broken out, until January 23. Before that announcement, the Chinese government had allowed millions of people to enter and leave Wuhan during Chinese New Year celebrations, thus spreading the contagion to other parts of China. China also knowingly allowed the virus to spread to other countries, including the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of international travelers entered and left China, many of them carrying the virus, even while the mainland authorities denied the risks.

According to some estimates, an early, transparent response to the outbreak by Beijing could have reduced the spread of the epidemic by upward of 90 percent. While Tedros' WHO cannot be faulted as much as the CCP itself, the WHO's policies in the critical earlier phase of the virus' spread accommodated the Chinese government first and protected international public health second.

The WHO and Taiwan

As if to demonstrate how completely it has been captured by the CCP, the WHO has hewed closely to China's line of excluding Taiwan from all global politics. For years, the WHO has happily obliged its Beijing masters and agreed to ostracize Taiwan—to the detriment its putative mission of ensuring the health of "all peoples."

Like other international organizations, the WHO deems democratic Taiwan to be a part of communist China, and accordingly bars it from membership. But the WHO has, in the past, consulted and cooperated with Taiwan—and indeed, Taiwan had observer status until 2016, when it elected a president whose views on independence for the island continue to displease the mainland.

The WHO's policy of sidelining Taiwan actually began well before Tedros assumed the organization's leadership. Taiwanese officials have claimed that the WHO denied them assistance during the 2003 SARS outbreak (in which 37 Taiwanese died). And Dr. Wang Pi-Sheng, the secretary general of the Taiwan Medical Association, expressed frustration in 2017 that the WHO would not allow Taiwan, with its world-class medical system, to share its resources and information with WHO member states. Arguing that the inclusion of Taiwan in global health planning was a matter of public safety that transcended politics, Wang said: "It's about the epidemic protection network. We don't want any gap from this network because now we have some new viral diseases. If we are absent, you will have a so-called critical gap."

Reflecting China's influence over him, Tedros has ratcheted up the WHO's hostility toward Taiwan. Near the beginning of the outbreak, Taiwan's health officials sought to warn the WHO (based on information they had received from mainland colleagues) that the disease could be transmitted between humans. Rather than heeding these warnings, the WHO issued an announcement in mid-January that endorsed the official CCP line that there was no human-to-human transmission of the disease. And although Taiwan has had enviable success in combating the disease on the island, the WHO continues even now to exclude Taiwan's health officials from emergency meetings and briefings that coordinate worldwide responses to the pandemic.

WHO logo
WHO logo FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

If the WHO had acted promptly on Taiwan's information in mid-January and not taken the Chinese regime's denial at its word, the WHO would have promptly begun to investigate the issue of transmission, studied the information provided by Taiwan's mainland sources and pressed CCP authorities. It could have made the rest of the world aware of the risk that the nascent disease might spread through human contact—and perhaps even elevated Taiwan's experience at successfully containing the disease into a best practice model for the rest of the world to follow. Disastrously, the WHO followed the CCP's lead instead.

Instead of accepting responsibility for these inexcusable omissions and the damage to global public health that ensued from them, Tedros sought to shift the blame to Taiwan, bizarrely accusing it of orchestrating a campaign against him that had "insulted" Africa and "the whole black community." Sadly, it is African nations themselves, including Tedros' Ethiopia, that stand to suffer disproportionately from his higher loyalty to CCP apparatchiks.

China's capture of the WHO, and the WHO's unfortunate turn from public health to crass politics, should prompt the U.S. and its allies to build a new international organization. The WHO loses its ability to advance global public health when it no longer has credibility as a source of impartial information and expertise. There is little benefit for the U.S. in remaining in such a corrupted and captured organization. China's desire to overturn the rules of the U.S.-led global order will require the United States and its allies to construct new international institutions for a different strategic environment. The first casualty of China's rise may well be the WHO.

John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former official in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Robert Delahunty is the Le Jeune Professor of Law at the University of St Thomas in Minneapolis and a former official in the U.S. Department of Justice and the White House.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.