This, we now know, was catastrophically untrue, and in the months since, the global pandemic has put much of the world under an unprecedented lockdown and killed more than 100,000 people.
The U.S. was also slow to recognize the seriousness of this new coronavirus, which caught the entire country unprepared. President Donald Trump has blamed the catastrophe on any number of different actors, most recently, singling out the WHO. “They missed the call,” Trump said about the body at a briefing this week. “They could have called it months earlier.”
Trump may well be looking to deflect blame for his own missed calls, but inherent structural problems at the WHO do make the organization vulnerable to misinformation and political influence, especially at a moment when China has invested considerable resources cultivating influence in international organizations whose value the Trump administration has questioned. (Trump just in March announced he would nominate someone to fill the U.S. seat on the WHO’s Executive Board, which has been vacant since 2018.)
Even in January, when Chinese authorities were downplaying the extent of the virus, doctors at the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan reportedly observed human-to-human transmission, not least by contracting the disease themselves. In the most famous example, Dr. Li Wenliang was censured for “spreading rumors” after trying to alert other doctors of the new respiratory ailment; he later died of the virus himself at age 33. China now claims him as a martyr. Asked about Li’s case at a press conference, the executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, Michael Ryan, said, “We all mourn the loss of a fellow physician and colleague” but stopped short of condemning China for accusing him. “There is an understandable confusion that occurs at the beginning of an epidemic,” Ryan added. “So we need to be careful to label misunderstanding versus misinformation; there’s a difference. People can misunderstand and they can overreact.”
Those lost early weeks also coincided with the Chinese New Year, for which millions of people travel to visit family and friends. “That’s when millions of Wuhan people were misinformed,” Xiao said. “Then they traveled all over China, all over the world.”
The WHO, meanwhile, was getting its information from the same Chinese authorities who were misinforming their own public, and then offering it to the world with its own imprimatur. On January 20, a Chinese official confirmed publicly for the first time that the virus could indeed spread among humans, and within days locked down Wuhan. But by then it was too late.
It took another week for the WHO to declare the spread of the virus a global health emergency—during which time Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, visited China and praised the country’s leadership for “setting a new standard for outbreak response.” Another month and a half went by before the WHO called COVID-19 a pandemic, at which point the virus had killed more than 4,000 people, and had infected 118,000 people across nearly every continent.