The WHO finally caved to pressure to label the coronavirus outbreak that causes COVID-19 a pandemic. Why did it take them so long?
After weeks of equivocating about the gravity of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on Wednesday.
The event marked a symbolic turning point for the WHO, which had been outspoken about the dangers of the virus but bizarrely reluctant to call it a pandemic.
“We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during Wednesday’s press conference.
In the past two weeks the number of cases outside China has increased thirteenfold and the number of affected countries has tripled.
In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries to climb even higher.
Two weeks ago, Dr. Michael Ryan – emergency direct or WHO’s health emergencies program – actually admitted that coronavirus had reached pandemic proportions.
He claimed that formally designating it a pandemic would be “unhelpful,” suggesting that the term had become a political football.
If this was influenza, we would probably have called this a pandemic by now, but what we’ve seen with this virus is that [containment measures work] and to declare a pandemic it’s unhelpful to do that when you’re still trying to contain a disease.
More than 80,000 cases had been confirmed when Ryan made that stunning confession. Yet the WHO still held the line as the numbers continued to snowball.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Johns Hopkins data indicated that there were at least 121,564 confirmed cases in 118 countries – including 1,050 in the U.S. – and 4,373 deaths. A little more than half of patients – 66,239 – had recovered.
While WHO officials hesitated to label the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, they were less measured in their effusive praise for China’s Communist Party .
Instead of rebuking the government for silencing whistleblowers and covering up the full extent of the health crisis, they gushed about Beijing’s “transparency” and “extraordinary” response to the virus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China.
“We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated,” Tedros infamously said in January.
“China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response,” he added elsewhere.
These seemingly inexplicable comments raised serious questions about the supposedly-independent WHO’s relationship with Beijing. Was the WHO delivering state media-friendly soundbites to avoid antagonizing a wealthy regime whose “transparency” about the severity of the health crisis was anything but assured?
Those rumors will – and should – persist.
But it’s clear that the pressure – and the “alarming levels of inaction” too great – for the WHO to equivocate any longer.
As Tedros explained:
We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.