by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge
GENEVA – The World Health Organisation said yesterday that an independent review of the global coronavirus response would begin as soon as possible, and received backing and a hefty pledge of funds from China, in the spotlight as the origin of the pandemic.
WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made his promise during a virtual meeting of the WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, at which Chinese president Xi Jinping defended his country’s own handling of the crisis.
United States president Donald Trump has fiercely questioned the WHO’s performance during the pandemic, withdrawing US funding after accusing it of being too China-centric, and at the same time leading international criticism of China’s lack of transparency in the early stages of the crisis.
Tedros, who has always promised a post-pandemic review, said it would come “at the earliest appropriate moment” and provide recommendations for future preparedness. He received robust backing from the WHO’s independent oversight panel.
“Every country and every organisation must examine its response and learn from its experience,” Tedros said, adding that the review must cover “all actors in good faith”.
A resolution drafted by the European Union calling for an independent evaluation of the WHO’s performance appeared to have won consensus backing among the WHO’s 194 member states.
In its first report on the WHO’s handling of the pandemic, the seven-member oversight committee said the United Nations agency had “demonstrated leadership and made important progress in its Covid-19 response”.
It backed a review of the response to the pandemic, but said conducting it during the heat of the response “could disrupt WHO’s ability to respond effectively”.
It also said “an imperfect and evolving understanding” is not unusual during the early phase of a novel disease emergence and, in an apparent rejoinder to Trump, said “rising politicisation of pandemic response” was hindering the effort to defeat the virus.
China has previously opposed calls for a review of the origin and spread of the coronavirus, but Xi signalled that Beijing would be amenable to an impartial evaluation of the global response once the pandemic is brought under control.
“This work needs a scientific and professional attitude, and needs to be led by the WHO. And the principles of objectivity and fairness need to be upheld,” he told the meeting via video.
Calling the pandemic the most serious global public health emergency since the end of World War II, Xi said: “All along we have acted with openness and transparency and responsibility.”
He pledged US$2 billion (about N$37 billion) over the next two years to help deal with Covid-19, especially to help developing countries.
The amount is roughly equivalent to the WHO’s entire annual programme budget for last year, and more than compensates for Trump’s freeze in US payments that had been worth about US$400 million (N$7,4 billion) a year.
China will also make any Covid-19 vaccines that it develops a public good to help to curb the pandemic, Xi said.