The WHO v coronavirus: why it can't handle the pandemic


If, like me, you have been confined to your home, glued to the news and nursing ever greater anxiety about the state of the world, you have probably become familiar with the sight of the World Health Organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and his daily press briefings. Tedros, as he is known, is a calming presence in the midst of the crisis. Flanked by an international cast of scientists, he always seems confident that if we have hope, listen to the experts and pull together, we will get through this.

Watching this reassuring spectacle, it is possible to imagine a world in which every nation respects the WHO’s authority, follows its advice and lets it coordinate the flow of information, resources and medical equipment across national boundaries to areas of greatest need.

That is not the world we live in. “The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric,” tweeted Donald Trump on 7 April, summing up just one of the many lines of criticism the WHO is currently facing. It is not just Trump – even some of the WHO’s supporters in government, academia and NGOs argue that since the start of the coronavirus crisis, it has caved in to nationalist bullies, praised draconian quarantine measures and failed to protect the liberal international order of which it is a linchpin. “You’ve got a situation where it looks like WHO doesn’t want to exercise its authority,” said David Fidler, a fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a regular consultant to the WHO.