Despite growing criticism, WHO head in Hungary defends China’s coronavirus response

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The head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Hungarian office, Dr. Ledia Lazeri, launched a strong defense of China’s role in the coronavirus crisis in an interview with conservative daily Magyar Nemzet, with the doctor claiming that there is no evidence “that China was intent on hiding anything”.

When asked about the approach of the Chinese authorities, where the virus originated from, Lazeri said that in the WHO’s opinion, the Asian nation cannot be reproached in any sense.

“Beijing has reported the appearance of the virus to the WHO very early, on Dec. 31. There is no evidence suggesting that China was intent on hiding anything. Quite to the contrary, to this day we are in full cooperation with China in their efforts to stop the disease, and we are also sharing those findings with other countries,” she said.

Lazeri’s remarks come at a time when the WHO is under fire by a number of countries and politicians for its response to the coronavirus crisis and the organization’s close relationship with China.

The WHO and China’s failures during the coronavirus crisis

World leaders have also weighed in on the WHO’s ties to China, with Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister of Japan, saying the agency should change its name to the “Chinese Health Organization”.

“Early on, if the WHO had not insisted to the world that China had no pneumonia epidemic, then everybody would have taken precautions,” Aso said on March 28. Although the WHO was already alerted in late December that a new disease had cropped up in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the world’s top health organization continued to repeat back Beijing’s line that there was little to worry about.

In another blow to the WHO’s credibility, Taiwan has accused the agency of failing to pass on its early warning about human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. Health officials from Taiwan say they alerted the WHO in late December about the risk of humans contracting the coronavirus but said the agency did not warn the rest of the world due to its close ties to Beijing.

Taiwan is not permitted in the WHO because of China’s opposition, with the Communist Party claiming Taiwanese territory belongs to China.

At the same time, the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has also come under attack for his defense of China throughout the crisis and his parroting of China’s assurances during the crisis.

Tedros expressed his disapproval of countries like Singapore, the United States, and Australia for closing their borders to China despite the threat international travel from China posed at the time.

The Council on Foreign Relations think tank has written that Tedros owes China after the communist government backed the former Ethiopian health minister during his election to become director-general in 2017.

The WHO head denies that he follows orders from Beijing but the WHO has been accused of dragging its feet in declaring a global health emergency. Tedros even praised China for demonstrating “transparency” during the crisis despite evidence the country covered up the outbreak and persecuted medical whistleblowers.

China silenced its critics

Despite Hungary’s WHO head saying, “There is no evidence suggesting that China was intent on hiding anything,” there is actually strong evidence that the country did attempt to hide the severity of the virus.

Dr. Li Wenliang reportedly first warned Chinese authorities about the coronavirus on Dec. 30, but instead of heeding his warnings, the Chinese police punished him along with seven others for “spreading rumors” about the virus.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also issued a report that the Chinese government suppressed journalists attempting to report on the coronavirus in the country, writing that the “Chinese state, in its obsession with complete control over information, has cracked down relentlessly on all independent information outlets.”

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, had this to say about China’s suppression of citizen journalists and whistleblowers:

“Dr. Li was like many within the Chinese population who want to report the reality of what is going on and alert their fellow citizens about government negligence. The coronavirus crisis has drawn attention to the deep thirst for reliable information within Chinese society, which is saturated with propaganda. Xi Jinping’s government has responded with deadly brutality.”

RSF is not the only one, with Shadi Hamid writing about China for The Atlantic:

“The evidence of China’s deliberate cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is a matter of public record. In suppressing information about the virus, doing little to contain it, and allowing it to spread unchecked in the crucial early days and weeks, the regime imperiled not only its own country and its own citizens but also the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks. More perniciously, the Chinese government censored and detained those brave doctors and whistleblowers who attempted to sound the alarm and warn their fellow citizens when they understood the gravity of what was to come.”

Research conducted by the University of Southhampton indicates that China could have prevented 95 percent of coronavirus infections worldwide if it had heeded the warning of Chinese doctor Li Wenliang and enacted restrictive measures three weeks earlier than it did.

Did the WHO ignore warnings?

Even as the seriousness of the coronavirus became more apparent, the WHO, after a preliminary investigation, stuck to China’s line about the coronavirus, which was that the virus another likely example of animal-to-human transmission. The WHO passed along this false information in a tweet on Jan. 14.

According to the New Statesmen, this information may have proven fatal, with governments around the world relying on the WHO to make key public health decisions in their own countries at the time. If the WHO had informed governments earlier that humans could indeed contract the virus from other humans, it could have given leaders a chance to implement more restrictive measures far sooner. 

The WHO also released this misleading claim despite Taiwan’s earlier warning about reports of human-to-human transmission.

Medical experts have said that China’s communist authorities may have stalled with their coronavirus response due to “politics” the world about the coronavirus and only did so only once they could no longer hide the severity of the disease to the international community.

The fact that branches of the WHO, including the one in Hungary, are still defending China’s conduct during the outbreak may point to a serious lack of transparency within the organization. It has also raised fears that the agency will continue to pursue China’s talking points during the crisis, a point the Trump administration has not overlooked.

President Donald Trump has said the U.S. government is now looking to potentially defend the agency, asserting that it failed to protect public health and participated in a cover-up for China during a crisis that killed over 100,000 people and shaken the world economy.

The U.S. is currently the single biggest contributor to the WHO’s budget.

Dr. Lazeri says Hungary had more time to react to the coronavirus crisis

Dr. Lazeri also addressed how the pandemic developed in Europe during her interview with Magyar Nemzet, saying the fight against the coronavirus pandemic requires the joint efforts of the entire society.

“Since the WHO was established in 1948, we lived through several pandemics. The last one was the 2009 flu, which, within the space of a year claimed between 100,000 and 400,000 casualties.” Lazeri said. “The current situation is special because this is both the first coronavirus epidemic and the first time global measures are taken to ensure physical distancing. As we speak, one-third of the world’s population — following the advice of their governments — is staying at home. Given the implemented measures and their size, these are unprecedented times.”

Regarding the significant differences in infection and mortality rates from country to country, Lazeri said a number of European countries had the benefit of seeing what was happening in Italy before the disease reached them and were thus able both to learn how to deal with it and make preparations.

“We knew the epidemic was coming, but nobody suspected it would be so strong. The virus hit Italy before Europe could have realized its force and speed,” she said. “The rest of Europe learned the lesson. By the time the epidemic reached Hungary and the surrounding countries, we already knew how fast it was spreading and were able to take immediate measures.”

Lazeri said the WHO could currently not predict the end of the epidemic, but stressed that — despite differences in how individual countries dealt with it — halting the pandemic required the concerted efforts of both government and society.

“The one thing we have certainly learned about this epidemic is that the fight requires the whole of government and society,” Lazeri said. “Even the strictest of government measures will be unsuccessful if the population does not observe public sanitation measures and does not cooperate with the health authorities in the interest of their own health and that of their beloved ones.”

Title image: Dr. Ledia Lazeri, head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Hungarian office. (MTI/Zsolt Szigetvári)

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