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Diane Francis: WHO leadership should be fired, not defunded, for ignoring Taiwan’s early warning on coronavirus

The piece below is an article written by Diane Francis which originally appeared in the Financial Post on April 16, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump’s incompetence and bungling in handling the coronavirus pandemic is indisputable. But his dispute with the World Health Organization (WHO) over its role in covering up the spread of the virus in China is dead on. The organization’s leadership should be dismissed, not defunded, and China should be condemned and sanctioned for its culpability in this catastrophe.

For months, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, unforgivably heaped praise on China for its coronavirus response, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. He took over in 2017 at the behest of China, after serving as the minister of health in Ethiopia — a country where China obtained huge contracts to build hospitals and various infrastructure projects.

The truth is that while China kept a lid on the virus, it also spread it by allowing thousands of flights all over the world to and from its epicentre during the outbreak in Wuhan. China also silenced its whistleblower, a physician who started warning about the virus in November and was later jailed to keep him quiet, before allegedly dying of the disease. It quietly procured ventilators and medical supplies from other countries before the world knew what was coming. And there is mounting evidence that China lied about its own fatalities, which are likely astronomically higher than the official figures.

The WHO ignored information and warnings from Taiwan because, after Tedros took over as its director general, the country was excluded from its policymaking body, the World Health Assembly. Taiwan has also been excluded for years, at China’s demand, from the United Nations.

The isolation of Taiwan, and the co-option of the WHO, will turn out to be a catastrophic lapse caused by Western cowardice in the face of China’s manipulation of international bodies.

In mid-December, Taiwanese authorities picked up information on social media about the disease’s spread in Wuhan. It sent experts to China in January to investigate the rumours, which caused Taiwanese leaders to realize there was a big problem. Then its public health system — which has been ready to deal with a pandemic since SARS — swung into action and notified WHO officials. The warning was ignored.

If Taiwan had been heeded, other countries may have managed to control the virus’ spread without shutting down their economies, as Taiwan has been able to do. To date, only six Taiwanese have died, out of a population of around 24 million.

Taiwan remains vigilant about China because it’s an existential threat to the island nation, militarily and health-wise. In 2019, it had 2.7 million visitors from China and after realizing a dangerous virus was extant, Taiwan undertook strict measures. Its officials boarded planes arriving from Wuhan to personally assess passengers, ordering those with a fever to go into isolation.

The government quarantined people who contracted the disease, took temperatures at most gatherings and tracked those who had been in contact with the infected through mobile apps. It stockpiled supplies, recruited soldiers to make masks, gave citizens two masks a week, restricted retail prices to stop price gouging and levied stiff fines for quarantine violators.

This allowed its workplaces, schools, stores and restaurants to remain open, while “virtually everyone has their temperature taken” wherever they go, according to one newspaper.

Clearly, the WHO was too late in sounding the alarm over China, and Trump’s lavish praise of China as late as mid-February made skeptical U.S. State Department advisors uncomfortable about what to advise, a source told the Washington Post.

But by April 10, the United States said it was “deeply disturbed that Taiwan’s information was withheld from the global health community, as reflected in the WHO’s Jan. 14, 2020 statement that there was no indication of human-to-human transmission.” Taiwanese Vice-President Chen Chien-Jen, an epidemiologist, said his country warned the WHO about human-to-human transmission two weeks earlier, on Dec. 31.

Clearly, the WHO’s leadership must go and China must pay. Taiwan should be recognized for its efforts to help the world and be admitted to the United Nations — immediately.