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Is WHO The One To Call On To Stop COVID-19?

The logo of the World Health Organization at its headquarters in Geneva.
The logo of the World Health Organization at its headquarters in Geneva.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has come under some blistering criticism for its response to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 190,000 people around the globe.

But while the UN agency stands accused of bungling its response to the outbreak that was first revealed in China in late December 2019, others have rushed to the WHO’s defense, arguing that it was never equipped or intended to be the transparency watchdog, compliance enforcer, and emergency field unit that some are suggesting it is.

When the world is plagued with an outbreak like COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is WHO really the one to call upon?

Harsh Critics

The criticism is led by the United States, which had recorded more than four times as many infections (nearly 940,000 as of April 26) and twice as many deaths (nearly 54,000) as the second-ranking country, Spain, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University. (These tallies rely on information provided by governments, some of which may be suppressing information, and the methodology, transparency, and quality of the data can vary dramatically country by country.)

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Washington has alleged that the WHO was slow to respond to the health emergency, praised China when it should have been scolding it, and was complicit with Beijing in downplaying the scale of the outbreak, contributing to its spread.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has charged that the organization was "China-centric" and has said that China should face consequences if it was "knowingly responsible" for the pandemic, has suspended $400 million in funding to the WHO.

The move by the United States effectively cut the organization off from its largest single funder.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued that the WHO’s regulatory body had "clearly failed" to hold member states accountable to their obligations to be transparent and forthcoming in alerting the world about public health emergencies.

He said on April 22 that the WHO has "two primary functions" -- that of a regulator and adviser, and as a "health emergency and humanitarian aid operation on top of that."

Furthermore, Pompeo argued, the organization had "clearly failed" to enforce requirements laid out in International Health Regulations that went into effect in 2007 and which mandate that member states provide the WHO with "timely, accurate, and sufficiently detailed public health information."

WHO The Enforcer?

The WHO’s defenders say the allegations being lobbed at it are not fair or factual.

In a video interview with RFE/RL on April 10, former U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said that the idea that the WHO is a "rapid-response arm" is a "mistaken understanding of what it is."

"It's technical expertise. It's, you know, gathering data from all over the world in order to declare epidemics or pandemics," said Power, who served under Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama. "So it's like an alert system, more than it is a response system, and then we need a response system in parallel."

'Disunity Is Devastating': Former U.S. Ambassador Says UN Must Get Its Act Together
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WATCH: 'Disunity Is Devastating': Former U.S. Ambassador Says UN Must Get Its Act Together

Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO’s Center on Global Health Law and a professor at Georgetown University, on April 9 took to the web to defend the organization against Trump’s claims and to clarify its role.

Gostin said it was a "very fair comment to say that China was not fully transparent, and that China delayed for several weeks, maybe even a month or more" before it reported the jump of the coronavirus from animal to human to the WHO.

But he said that "that’s not the WHO’s fault, that’s China’s fault."

"From the WHO’s point of view, they immediately notified the world population," he said.

Gostin also rejected allegations that the WHO did not declare an emergency soon enough, saying that the suggestion was "factually wrong."

The WHO "declared a public health emergency very quickly after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported," he said, referring to the January 30 move made as thousands of new cases in China were revealed.

People are mistaken, he said, in confusing that declaration with the labeling of the outbreak as a pandemic, which occurred on March 12, but which actually had "no legal significance."

"In fact," he said, "the WHO has no power to declare a pandemic, it just gave its opinion. What it did do was exercise all the powers it could."

Not So Strong?

Those powers are arguably not very strong.

"WHO should have been more skeptical about what the Chinese were telling them, but they’re totally at the mercy of what governments provide," Daniel Speigel, the former UN ambassador under the administration of President Bill Clinton, told The Washington Post this month.

"They have no intelligence capabilities, and no investigatory power," he added.

Founded in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, the WHO was intended to promote global health and protect against infectious diseases, such as cholera and polio. But it has no real independent authority, experts have argued, and is entirely dependent on its 194 member states as well as private entities for funding.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Gostin compares the WHO’s annual budget to that of a "large U.S. hospital," and says the amount -- which was $4.4 billion over the two-year period of 2018-2019 -- is "wholly incommensurate with its global responsibilities."

The world’s biggest powers, including China, which Gostin said "has given the WHO just a pittance," have underfunded the organization. In addition, he said, the organization is only in charge of no more than 25 percent of its own budget, because much of the funding is provided on contingency that it be used for a specific purpose.

Gostin called on the funding of the WHO to be made mandatory by countries, under international law.

"If we didn’t have it," he said of the UN agency, "we would have to invent it."

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