Coronavirus blame game threatens to mar World Health Assembly

"The principal spoiler at this event, I think, is going to be the United States," said Mukesh Kapila, a former WHO adviser.

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By Alexander Smith and Laura Saravia

LONDON — The World Health Assembly is usually a sedate annual gathering of senior government health officials in Geneva attracting scant attention outside health care specialists.

Monday is set to bring a summit like none before.

Not only has the coronavirus killed at least 300,000 people globally and brought a wrenching economic recession, but it has also triggered a drastic escalation in tension between the world's two largest economies, the United States and China.

Embroiled in the dispute is the World Health Organization, the U.N. agency for which the assembly in Geneva acts as a decision-making body.

"The principal spoiler at this event, I think, is going to be the United States," said Mukesh Kapila, a former adviser to the WHO's previous director-general. Kapila has also worked at a slew of other U.N. agencies and for the British government during his 30-year career.

"It may well use this forum to grandstand its attacks on China and, of course, the leadership of the WHO — in fact, I'm quite sure they will do so," said Kapila, who is now a professor of global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester in England.

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That's if the U.S. shows up at all.

President Donald Trump has already moved to withdraw U.S. funding from the WHO, which advises its 194 member countries but has no actual power to enforce health care policy. The president also declined to attend a recent European Union summit that raised $8 billion for a global fund for vaccines and treatments.

The WHO's assemblies usually tackle a plethora of world health issues, but this time the decks have been cleared to focus on one: COVID-19.

The EU has drafted a resolution to boost international cooperation on vaccines, treatments, testing and medical supplies. Many observers expect another one calling for an investigation into the origins of the virus, which China is likely to oppose.

But given the political tension, the unprecedented global scrutiny and the fact that this year's virtual format rules out any backroom diplomacy over coffee, there is no telling how the event will work in practice.

"We are really in uncharted territory," said Charles Clift, who has worked as an adviser to the WHO and the British government and is now a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank. "We don't know how the U.S. will behave and whether it will say inflammatory things now that the U.S. and China have entered into a sort-of cold war."

There is plenty of blame to go around.

Many experts say Trump was far too slow to prepare the U.S. and risks further lives by pushing for the country to reopen too quickly.

The president has been Beijing's chief accuser, but he is far from the only one to have alleged that Chinese officials covered up the virus during its early stages and exacerbated its spread into a pandemic.

China has vehemently denied the allegations. Its Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told reporters Thursday that "a lie repeated a thousand times is still a lie. We should stick to facts."

The U.S. and China have also clashed over whether to allow Taiwan, which has been praised for its response, to take part in the assembly.

China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, has said it can participate only if it accepts that it is part of China, which Taiwan was always going to reject. The U.S. has backed including it, with the U.S. Embassy in Geneva alleging that Beijing would rather that Taiwan's "success not be shared, no doubt to avoid uncomfortable comparisons."

There has been recrimination, too, aimed at the WHO. While they may not use Trump's harsh rhetoric, many expert observers say the agency was at least far too credulous in believing Beijing's reassurances, which it then amplified uncritically to the wider world.

The most notorious example was a Jan. 14 tweet from the WHO that read, "Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus."

Under particular scrutiny is the WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

He heaped praise on Beijing's coronavirus response even while there was evidence that Chinese authorities had underreported cases and tried to silence those sounding the alarm.

Tedros, 55, who like many Ethiopians goes by his first name, has been accused of kowtowing to undemocratic regimes before.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at briefing on COVID-19 in Geneva in March. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images file

He is a former government minister in Ethiopia, which, despite recent reforms, is still classified as "authoritarian" by the Economist Intelligence Unit research group.

Shortly after he took the helm of the WHO, Tedros was criticized for appointing the then-president of Zimbabwe — Robert Mugabe, who often traveled abroad to receive health care — as a WHO "goodwill ambassador."

Plenty of experts say the WHO has done an admirable job when facing an impossible task: corralling the world into a unified coronavirus response. But even those sympathetic to the organization say there have been missteps.

"Clearly, a charge has been made, and the charge has to be answered," Kapila said of allegations that the WHO was complicit in a misinformation campaign by China. "I don't know the answer unless we have an independent inquiry."

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For Karol Sikora, an ex-WHO adviser who is dean of medicine at the University of Buckingham in England, the assembly must produce a resolution that gives "more direction from the WHO."

"They've not been prescriptive in their advice. That's what governments need," said Sikora, who has accrued more than 200,000 Twitter followers as a prominent promoter of positive news related to the pandemic. "They need to have some clear answers on things like face masks, distancing, international travel and schools."

Because the conference is a virtual one, "they are not going to be able to go out to the bars of Geneva at the end of it," he said. "They are going to have to deal with the practicalities of how we can get back to a near-normal world in the future."

Others are not optimistic. "All they can do is pass resolutions," Clift said. "It has a rather indirect effect on what happens in the real world."