An empty airport terminal due to the significantly reduced travel. | Photo Credit: Safwan Mahmud, Unsplash

WHO is at fault?

As the COVID-19 pandemic presses on, it is inevitable that we try to find someone to blame for this health crisis. However, when such a major crisis breaks out in our complex international system, simply pointing our finger at one party is too simple.

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Most crises, be it financial crises or global pandemics, tend to affect the world one way or another. Hence, discussions and debates would often follow to pinpoint the faults of different actors. This is no different for the current COVID-19 pandemic which has successfully hit every corner of the earth.  Some have put the blame on China for not admitting the presence of a virus and not taking the necessary steps to prevent it from spreading internationally. Others find that international organisations, the World Health Organization (WHO) in particular, are to blame. 

China’s Role In Causing The Pandemic

The first finger pointed was towards the origin of the virus outbreak – China. Despite previous experiences with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, officials swept the virus spreading in Wuhan, Hubei Province, under the rug. Their dishonesty of the situation coupled with the Government permitting international travel led to the spread of the virus beyond the Chinese borders. 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology which is being investigated by the WHO. | Photo Credit: Thomas Peter, Reuters

However, the blame on China does not stop there. 

When the WHO prepared their resources and sent their personnel to China to start an urgent investigation, they were stuck outside the borders for nearly a month. China’s lack of cooperation with the world had unnecessarily prolonged the process. This allowed China to escape investigations as the WHO only started a year after the start of the pandemic. By that time, they had already bounced back from the outbreak and the virus was almost gone from the region. This helped China avoid taking the blame during the World Health Assembly in 2020.

China went under the spotlight yet again in June 2021 after a US intelligence report revealed there were indeed members of the Wuhan Institute of Virology who fell ill before the first traces of the virus were found. This launched a new wave of investigations and re-opened the theory that the COVID-19 virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan. The United States of America (US), together with other countries like Britain and Japan, have been actively supporting these investigations. China once again did not cooperate with the WHO nor the investigations. Hence, the US decided to use the analysis on the early cases exported from China to help with the investigations. 

However, as of Aug 27, 2021, the US concluded that they failed to determine the origin of the virus. Despite the failed result of their investigations, the US wants to continue pressuring China’s leadership into being more transparent about the virus, its origins, as well as the leadership’s role in causing the pandemic.

WHO’s Role In Causing The Pandemic

Though certain politicians would like to keep the blame on China, the reality is that there are more actors at fault. The WHO has been heavily criticised for many of its shortcomings, particularly the lack of international surveillance. Furthermore, since all countries are sovereign, the WHO has no power to enforce any form of investigations nor protocols if countries are unwilling to cooperate. We see this playing out in China’s defiance against the WHO. 

Primarily, if the WHO had been able to deploy their personnel and investigate the virus at the end of 2019, it’s highly probable that the economic loss and deaths incurred from this pandemic could have been prevented.

The extensive spread of COVID-19 cases across the globe. | Photo Credit: John Hopkins University

Furthermore, the WHO was fickle in declaring the virus as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). On Jan 23, 2020, the WHO declared that COVID-19 was not a PHEIC despite reports of the virus in other countries after the infected persons entered their borders. While the WHO’s risk assessment had declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be of high risk in China, the region and globally, they did not recommend any restrictions on travel and trade. At that point in time, they did not want to cause a global panic. Instead, they merely gave advice on exit screening and personal hygiene such as washing hands and wearing masks.

However, just seven days later, on Jan 30, 2020, the WHO sounded the highest level of alarm and declared the outbreak as a PHEIC. Had the WHO discussed and advised on travel restrictions slightly earlier, perhaps the international spread of the virus could have been curbed as more countries might have understood the urgency of implementing their protocols.

Rather than waiting around for the WHO’s advice, countries like Afghanistan and North Korea decided to close their borders and implement stricter controls. On the other hand, the majority of the other countries took longer to implement travel restrictions. Some even failed to do so until after they experienced severe outbreaks in their own country.

Individual Countries And Their Role In Causing The Pandemic

While the WHO did not release a PHEIC level of warning, reports of the spread of COVID-19 in different countries made it apparent that the virus is highly contagious. With the available information and reports pertaining to the virus released by the WHO, it was the feigned ignorance and hesitance of local governments to impose stricter regulations and travel restrictions. 

US Senators debating about the COVID-19 relief bill on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. | Photo Credit: Senate Television via AP

Why? 

Trade. Business. Diplomacy. 

Basically, politics and money.

With travel restrictions put in place, countries would ultimately suffer economic losses due to its implications on travel and trade. Some countries dependent on tourism have seen drastic impacts on their economies. For example, in 2020, the Maldives, a famous tourist destination, saw a dip of 28 per cent in their economy, as compared to 2019. Even as they allowed tourists to visit without quarantine restrictions, the number of tourists was still 42 per cent lower than in 2019.

As such, countries like Singapore only stopped entry for short-term travelers on Mar 23, 2020 despite the PHEIC declaration on Jan 30, 2020, while South Korea had others close their doors on them due their massive outbreak. 

At the beginning of the global pandemic, South Korea and Italy were some of the first countries to experience the wrath of the virus. While these countries were battling the virus, elected officials in other countries debated the public health issue using politics and the economy. For example, under the Trump Administration, the US was too busy debating whether COVID-19 tests should be free for the public. Hence, the late regulations, protocols and testing worsened the outbreaks in countries like the US.

With most countries practising lockdown or semi-lockdown measures, both 2020 and 2021 have been filled with economic loss, deaths, fear and uncertainty. The uncertainty of the virus was further proven when new variants of the virus, like the Delta variant, were first found in India in December 2020. The Delta strain has since been affecting many other countries, especially the US. Hence, countries have been stuck in a never-ending cycle of both strict and eased restrictions, causing countries like Australia and New Zealand to undergo multiple lockdowns.  

The Benefits Of Restrictions

Countries like Singapore, which implemented measures relatively early are now seeing the perks of it. Singapore has had periods of restrictions for activities like dining in and social gatherings when extensive clusters appear in the community. 

Individuals in Singapore going about their normal routines while masked. | Photo Credit: Caroline Chia, Reuters

With more than 80 per cent of the population vaccinated, the Singapore government aims to ease restrictions and return to the new normal. However, it is also largely dependent on the situation of the country. While not being one hundred per cent free from the virus, Singapore has managed to control the situation, allowing the country to enjoy a new normal where businesses like retail and entertainment can re-open, though still under safety measures. 

Singapore is also beginning to open quarantine-free travel to certain countries like Germany and Brunei. This would allow their economy to slowly recover earlier than countries that took late precautions and lost the support of their people during the pandemic. 

Who Is Actually At Fault? 

Though China did make mistakes, it takes two hands to clap in every crisis. Perhaps if there were earlier efforts by other countries to stop the spread of the virus, China’s faults would not have had such extensive impacts. With that said, as we continue in what seems like a tunnel with no end, the main objective now is for countries to adapt to the new normal and pick themselves up again. Until then, the debate on who is to blame for this global crisis should be the last on our list of concerns.

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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