Countries outside China have not sent adequate case reports to WHO in time, while media has suffered an ‘infodemic.’ Instead of battling COVID-19, WHO was targeted as international coverage has relied on the selective bias.
“We now have a name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus: COVID-19,” tweeted WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on February 12. “WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He added: “Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing.”
Recently, this critical task has been complicated by misguided media coverage and attacks against WHO, China and people of Chinese descent rather than the virus.
Infodemic versus epidemic
Last Saturday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged global leaders to stop stigma and hate amid the virus outbreak. His comments in Munich followed reports that people of Asian descent have faced discrimination amid virus fears. “We will all learn lessons from this outbreak,” he added, “but now is not the time for reclamations or politicization.”
At the end of January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the ongoing virus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC). It is a technical term, but an important one referring to “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.”
As WHO made clear, the PHEIC was not motivated by China, but the possible effects of the virus, if it would spread to countries with weaker healthcare systems.
At WHO, the concern was compounded when terms, such as “virus outbreak,” “epidemic” and “pandemic,” got blurred even in reputable international media. orse, too many other dailies and social media deployed biased and racially-coded terms, such as “Chinese disease” and “Kung flu.” Tabloid hysteria contributed to ugly instances of xenophobia, even racism against people of Chinese and Asian descent, while leading to bullying in schools, colleges, even universities.
During the 14th century, the Black Death led people to burn Jews, Romani and other vulnerable minorities. Such prejudice should have no role in the early 21st century.
Nonetheless, it was this misinformation on a global scale that compelled the WHO to declare the COVID-19 an ‘infodemic” on February 2. To track and respond to myths and rumors, the WHO began to identify the most predominant virus rumors and false prevention measures. Since international media shunned responsibility for evidence-based factual discourse, WHO had to allocate its scarce resources to do the job.
Stunningly, it took until mid-February for some of the world’s largest technology companies – including Google, Amazon, and YouTube – to get together, when WHO hosted a Silicon Valley meeting to discuss how to tamp down on misinformation about the virus.
WHO’s Andy Pattison said the “tone is changing,” as Big Tech is now starting to step up to combat fake news about the virus. Even then, while Apple and ridesharing giants Lyft and Uber were invited, they did not attend. Yet, they should have done so. In the concurrent weeks, the struggle against COVID-19 has gone hand in hand with a battle against the WHO and its executives.
How WHO and its chief were targeted
Since late January, almost 380,000 people have signed an online petition to the UN for the WHO chief to resign because he allegedly “solely believes” Chinese outbreak data. In contrast to allegations, WHO chief Dr. Tedros has initiated a review process to study the causes of the virus, while stressing adherence to WHO guidelines regarding pandemics.
The smear campaign is an ugly déjà vu. In 2017, Dr Tedros, a high-level Ethiopian health executive, succeeded Margaret Chan as the chief WHO. While he was considered highly qualified for the job and an innovative reformer in Ethiopia, his candidacy was attacked at the last eve of the WHO election, when odd stories surfaced about an alleged cover-up of cholera epidemics in Ethiopia. Reportedly, the allegations came from Lawrence Gostin, a US law professor who advised the rival UK candidate (and has recently resurfaced as a critic of China’s virus struggle).
In the UN, the African Union dismissed the allegations as an “unfounded and unverified defamation campaign.” Yet, once again, the old smear campaign stories have been recycled in media.
When attacks against Dr. Tedros went nowhere, the international spotlight focused on WHO Infections Hazards Director Dr. Sylvia Briand when she stated in early February that “we are not in a pandemic.” In WHO’s view, COVID-19 was an epidemic, she said adding that Chinese authorities had “been very transparent with WHO and shared almost immediately the sequence of the virus as soon as they had it.” Then she became a target for criticism.
In international media, COVID-19 has been reported as something of a systemic challenge against Chinese leadership, Communist party, and its leader Xi Jinping personally. Hence the screaming headlines focusing on politics rather than urgent international cooperation to contain the threat.
Seeking to stay away from political intrigues, WHO’s pandemic declaration requires strong evidence and relies on a tested six-stage classification, which starts with the virus mainly infecting animals with a few cases of animals infecting people, then moves through the stage where the virus begins to spread between people, and ends with a pandemic when infections from the new virus have spread worldwide.
A disease is not a pandemic just because it is widespread or even if it kills people. It must be fatal, infectious and international. The last pandemic was the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak (swine flu), which is estimated to have killed around 150,000 to 300,000 people around the world. In contrast, COVID019 has so far resulted in 5 deaths outside China, despite weeks of diffusion.
Countries outside China failed to provide adequate reports to WHO
In the early 2000s, China’s efforts to control SARS were criticized as the disease spread internationally before the global outbreak was subdued. A decade later, the Chinese response to Avian influenza (H7N9) was significantly faster, broadly praised and the disease did not spread widely. With COVID-19, as Dr Tedros has stated, China should be credited with identifying the virus in “record time,” sharing its genetic sequence quickly, and flagging potential international spread.
Yet, there is a strange discrepancy in the international coverage of the COVID-19. This coverage has systematically focused on China’s alleged conduct, while ignoring the actual conduct of many other influential WHO member states.
This discrepancy prevails even today, despite the news bomb of February 4, when WHO chief Tedros said that it was not China, but countries outside China that had proved slow in sharing complete information about cases. WHO was particularly concerned about the fact that, even after almost a month of international crisis and global alert, it had received complete case reports for only 38% of the cases.
In other words, a whopping three of five member countries had failed to provide adequate information to WHO in a timely manner. Those reports were vital to the global organization so that it could assess the true international scope of the outbreak, while broadening and deepening containment efforts.
“I don’t think it’s because they lack capacity,” Dr Tedros stated pointedly about these WHO members. It would be ideal, he added, if WHO would receive the most up-to-date information, not just from China but the rest of the world.
It was only after Tedros’s public statement that some member states began to share data with WHO. Meanwhile, precious time had been lost.
Even though these lost opportunities could result in potential secondary COVID-19 outbreaks outside China, international media has not yet asked the tough questions about the belated international cooperation outside China.
Instead of focusing on the need for international cooperation, international coverage has produced a series of headlines against the WHO. On February 5, a day after Dr Tedros had urged countries to provide complete case reports, Financial Times reported that the influential WHO emergency committee member and veteran professor John Mackenzie “hit out at Beijing’s ‘reprehensible’ response,” and “accused China of not reporting coronavirus cases fast enough.”
The charge was not publicly supported by other committee members, nor by WHO executives. Moreover, the FT neglected to mention that the highly qualified Mackenzie also serves in Australian government’s Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security, which plays a role in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific initiative aiming to contain China’s rise, and is the co-chair of a major NGO, whose key partners include Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which compete “against Chinese influence.”
The tone of international coverage, even in the reputable media, still hasn’t changed. On February 13, Wall Street Journal released a new front-page story, “WHO Criticized for Virus Response,” that broadened the WHO criticism. It relied in part on critical quotes by both Mackenzie and Lawrence Gostin, the China critic who had tried to undermine Tedros’s candidacy at WHO. Free media has a right to critical views, but not to the lack of relevant context. Like other interviewees, both were portrayed as independent, disinterested, neutral observers. Furthermore, all interviewees represented experts from the U.S. or its allies. Not a single major Chinese health expert was interviewed.
Recently, the pattern has been typical to even reputable international dailies. Such purposeful selectivity fosters an impression that legitimate expertise is limited mainly to the critics of WHO.
With COVID-19, there are now (2 pm Wuhan time, Feb 17) over 71,000 confirmed cases worldwide, while the number of deaths is nearly 1,800 and the number of recovered exceeds 11,000.
And yet, the number of the confirmed cases and deaths has remained barely 800 and 5, respectively, outside China. While these numbers will continue to climb, the low starting-point suggests that China’s costly and draconian measures may have saved many lives within and outside China.
Moreover, the pace of contagion is changing in China. The relative increase of the accumulated cases has decreased since mid-January. While the pace peaked at almost 100% after mid-January, it has declined to zero (Figure). With new cases, the trend is even more discernible.
Figure Rising Accumulated Numbers, Falling Relative Rates
Daily Increase of Accumulated Cases, Jan 10 to Feb 15, 2020*
Source: DifferenceGroup. Data from China’s National Health Commission
* Starting from February 12th, confirmed include not just tested confirmed cases but clinically diagnosed cases (which allows the infected to access treatment faster while containing them from the rest of the population). Yet, the statistical “bump” has not changed the trend lines.
While the data could indicate a possible turnaround in the virus outbreak, viruses can zigzag. But assuming data integrity and current trends, we may be witnessing a crossroads – despite politicized international coverage.
In China, the mortality rate (deaths/cases) is now 2.5% (less than a fourth of SARS and only a fraction relative to MERS), with most cases still in Hubei and its capital Wuhan. Outside China, the risk is even lower, less than 0.6%; barely four times higher than seasonal flu.
Due to the initial complacency outside China, there is a critical caveat now, however. If these countries fail to identify, monitor and contain their cases, the probability of secondary virus clusters can still rise, even soar.
Moreover, stumbling won’t help. Last week, plans to roll out COVID-19 testing kits to public health laboratories hit a snag in the U.S. when some of the labs validating the tests of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) got inconclusive results when running it themselves.
As WHO chief Dr Tedros says, there still remains a “window of opportunity” to stop COVID-19 from becoming a broader global crisis. Throughout the ongoing virus outbreak, he has admirably sought to foster an international battle against COVID-19. “The virus is a common enemy,” he says. “Let’s not play politics here.”
At the current pace, the confirmed COVID-19 cases could exceed 100,000 in a week or two and global resources should be focused on avoiding secondary outbreak clusters outside China. It is the virus that international cooperation and coverage should attack – not the WHO.
About the Author
Dr. Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognized strategist of the multipolar world and the founder of Difference Group. He has served at the India, China and America Institute (USA), Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see https://www.differencegroup.net