China Announces US$ 2 Billion COVID-19 Initiative; US Assails China’s Pandemic Response; WHO Decries Global “Amnesia” About Epidemic Lessons
US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar

China’s Xi Jinping announced a sweeping US$ 2 billion funding initiative for COVID-19 response in China’s opening speech at the World Health Assembly. Later in the day, the United States, disgruntled and having withdrawn funding from WHO, said it had spent US$ 9 billion on Covid-19 response and would soon be funneling over US$500 million to 40 of the most “at risk” countries – although the remarks were delivered by US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and not President Donald Trump.

Xi said the China would create a “global humanitarian response capital and hub” in China and “green” corridors to Africa to fast track customs and ensure vital health supplies reach the continent. China will also partner with some 30 major African hospitals, accelerate the building of the China Centres for Disease Control headquarters, and pursue a debt suspension initiative.

Finally, he said that Beijing would ramp up its research and development of a COVID-19 vaccine, and ensure that it is made available as a “global public good.”

“The vaccine when available, will be made a global public good, this will assure China’s contribution to assure vaccines accessibility,”  said Xi, speaking in a web-broadcast statement at the first-ever virtual World Health Assembly.

Significantly, China was the first world leader to address the Assembly’s opening, just after a welcome by WHO host country Switzerland. Xi was followed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who echoed the call for a vaccine as a “global public good;” as well as the Republic of Korea’s Moon Jae-in, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The increasingly bitter US rivalry with China hovered over this year’s World Health Assembly meeting, even as global leaders sought a way forward on cooperation to confront the pandemic that has locked down societies, devastated economies and reached most countries around the world.

The United States Responds – Alleges WHO Failure

In his response, Azar he took the World Health Organization to task – and Beijing indirectly – for failing to warn the world early enough about the risks that were posed by the appearance of a mysterious new coronavirus in Wuhan, China.

“We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control,” said Azar, “There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives.

“In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak, at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world,” Azar added. “We saw that WHO failed at its core mission of information sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith. This cannot ever happen again. The status quo is intolerable. WHO must change, and it must become far more transparent and far more accountable.

Azar said the US wanted “an independent review of every aspect of WHO’s response to the pandemic. We all must come together to ensure that WHO fulfills its key mandate, and that member states comply with the International Health Regulations.”

A review of WHO’s performance is in fact mandated in a European Union-led draft resolution on COVID-19 response, due to be approved by the Assembly on Tuesday. Diplomatic sources said that the United States appeared set to tacitly back the resolution, albeit while disassociating itself from paragraphs referring to the patent overrides and sexual and reproductive health – which the White House regards as code words for abortion rights.

The resolution also calls for a scientific inquiry into the original source of the coronavirus, and the pathway by which it leapt to humans, another key US demand.

The virus is typical of pathogens that circulate in bats in China’s Yunnan province, although no one has yet found an exact match for the SARS-COV-2 that first began to circulate widely around a Wuhan food market selling wild animals, in late 2019, which is almost 1,000 kilomterrs away. While WHO has said the virus almost certainly emerged from a natural source, some critics, including US President Trump, have also suggested that it could have have escaped from a nearby virology research lab.

Overt Rift Over Taiwan Avoided At Opening Ceremony –  Member States Hint at Inclusion
World Health Assembly 73 President, Keva Bain, Bahamas, announcing the decision to defer vote on Taiwan until WHA73 resumes later this year

Despite the obvious US-China tensions, the most immediate point of conflict – a request by Taiwan to join the Assembly as an observer – was quietly postponed for consideration at this month’s abridged WHA73 session.  Agreement on the postponement was reached in  informal consultations between the US, China and its allies over the weekend.

In response to a motion by new WHA president Keva Bain of The Bahamas, Member States agreed to resume discussion on Taiwan when the 73rd session reconvenes later this year, presumably with a full agenda.

Even so, a growing undercurrent of support for Taipei’s participation in the WHA seemed apparent at the Assembly, and may signal stronger pushback against Beijing down the line at the full agenda WHA.

Leading WHO donors such as Germany, hinted that the past practice of excluding Taipei should not remain the status quo:  “WHO should be a place for all relevant players who are able to contribute experiences in successfully fighting COVID-19.  WHO must become more independent from external interference,” said German Health Minister, Jens Spahn.

Only a handful of states, including Syria, overtly supported a “one-China policy” in the Monday virtual session.

The proposal to reinstate Taiwan’s observer status at the WHA – a role it held between 2009-2016, was made by some 13 countries, led by Belize and Guatemala, as well as other Central American, Caribbean, and Pacific island states.

It has received backing not only by the United States, but also from Australia and New Zealand, and others concerned about China’s growing web of geopolitical influence reaching deep into the Pacific region as well as westwards to Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa.

US says it hopes to “join consensus” on European Union Resolution for COVID-19 response

Despite bitter criticism of WHO, US Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Andrew Bremberg, said earlier on Monday that he hoped that the US “will be able to join consensus” around the proposed European Union-led resolution for COVID-19 response.

The resolution, which was hotly debated for the past three weeks behind closed doors, has now snowballed with overwhelming support from over 100 countries in every WHO region, including African member states. The long list of major government co-sponsors also includes the United Kingdom, Norway and Japan; India, Indonesia and Bangladesh in South-East Asia; Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean, and Canada and Mexico, Chile, Brazil and Peru in the Americas.  Notably, Switzerland is missing from the list of European government co-sponsors, which extend from Iceland in the west, to non-EU members such as the Russian Federation, as well as Monaco, Montenegro, Macedonia, Moldova, Turkey, Kazakstan and Albania in the east.

The final draft, agreed to last week, calls for a voluntary patent pool for new treatments and vaccines; a strong role for WHO along with an independent “stepwise” examination of the global and national pandemic response “at the appropriate time”; and an affirmation of the rights of countries to override patents altogether in case of need.

But the US delegation may also “dissociate” itself from at least two passages in the resolution, while stopping short of blocking consensus, sources said.

The controversial sections, debated at length by member states last week include: a) a reference to countries’ rights to patent overrides – which the US had wanted to be balanced with a reference to the importance of intellectual property in stimulating private sector R&D; and b) a reference to continued routine health services provision during the pandemic, including services for “sexual and reproductive health”, which the US Trump Administration views as code words for abortion rights.

Tedros: World Doesn’t Need More Plans; It Needs to Implement Existing Ones – And Strengthen WHO
WHO Director General Dr Tedros speaks at World Health Assembly

Meanwhile, WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whose record has been under attack, welcome a EU-sponsored plan for a step-wise evaluation of the WHO but also said the countries often failed to learn from the lessons of past epidemics.

“The world can no longer afford the short-term amnesia that has characterised its response to health security for so long,” he said, calling for a more “comprehensive chain for pandemic preparedness,”  Dr Tedros said in his opening address.

He said that he would nonetheless initiate an evaluation of the COVID-19 response “at the earliest possible moment.”

“The virus has made us humble,” Dr Tedros said. ‘”We all have lessons to learn from the pandemic…every organization must examine itself,” he said, noting that a WHO oversight had already published its first assessment of the pandemic,  “WHO is committed to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement,” he said.

But he also told countries that more than a review, political will and global solidarity is required to learn from the already obvious key lessons of COVID-19.

“We don’t need a review to tell us that we must do everything in our power to ensure that this doesn’t happen again,” Dr Tedros said.  “Whatever lessons we might learn from this pandemic, the greatest lesson would be not to learn from them and to leave the world as vulnerable as it was before.

“The world doesn’t need another plan, another system or another committee. It needs to strengthen, implement and finance the systems and organizations it already has including WHO.

“What it has lacked is the sustained commitment to use the science, the tools and the resources that it has. That must change, and it must change today. Today, I am calling on all nations to ensure that it will do everything it can to make sure that the 2020 COVID pandemic is never repeated.”

Key Donor Countries Express Strong Support For WHO – But Also For Independent Review of COVID-19 Performance  
(top-down, left-right) Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Simonetta Sommaruga, Moon Jae-in

Key European delegations such as France and Germany attempted to strike a conciliatory note by upping their financial contributions and calling for increased funding for the WHO, while at the same time supporting the call for an independent review into the agency’s handling of the crisis. Many countries also called for the International Health Regulations to be strengthened.

“The WHO is the legitimate world organization for the area of health, and so we should continue to work to improve procedures within [the agency],” said Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany will increase its WHO contribution to a total of €176 million, according to Spahn. The country doubled its funding allocation for WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme to €50 million. 

French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France had “substantially increased” its contribution to the Organization, saying, “We need WHO for its irreplaceable coordinating role, scientific expertise, and knowledge of the situation on the ground.”

He too, however, supported the independent review, saying: “We need to look at the situation clearly, and… carry out an honest and vigorous assessment of what’s worked and what hasn’t worked in the way this international crisis has been managed.” 

The French and German Heads of State’s comments were echoed by President of the Swiss Confederation, Simonetta Sommaruga, who firmly declared that an international, multilateral response to the pandemic should be “strengthened” rather than “undermined.” Sommaruga also announced a new Swiss-led initiative to form regional coalitions to assure countries’ adherence to the International Health Regulations – the body of international law governing WHO’s pandemic response.

Germany, France, The Netherlands and the Republic of Korea also supported giving the IHR more teeth, with some even calling for the establishment of binding legal measures for countries. 

“We must update the WHO International Health Regulations and other relevant norms and augment them with binding legal force,” said Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in. “A novel infectious disease could emerge at any time and we must be able to respond more quickly and effectively. Infection-related data should be shared among countries in a more transparent manner, and an early warning and cooperation mechanism must be jointly established at the G20 June 21st Summit.” 

Svet Lustig Vijay, Grace Ren, and Tsering Lhamo contributed to this story

Image Credits: Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han).