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Did WHO's China ties slow decision to declare emergency?

Beijing has contributed money and leadership to the UN agency

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Jan. 28.   © Reuters

GENEVA/BEIJING -- A day after the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a global health emergency, some are questioning whether the Chinese government's ties to the United Nations agency may have contributed to the time it took to make the decision.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus heaped praise on China in Thursday's news conference in Geneva announcing the emergency.

"The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak," Tedros said.

"The speed with which China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive and beyond words," he said, and noted that China is setting "a new standard" for outbreak response.

But a diplomatic source in Geneva simply called the WHO declaration "too late."

The WHO decided against declaring a global health emergency at a Jan. 23 meeting, when Tedros said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China. The number of patients grew more than 10 times worldwide to exceed 9,000 in the week that followed.

During the 2002-03 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, the Chinese government was heavily criticized for hiding information. Beijing has put an emphasis on cooperating with the international community this time.

But it also allowed millions of citizens to travel abroad for the Lunar New Year holiday, even after the illness in Wuhan was known. Those travelers ended up becoming carriers of the coronavirus to multiple countries.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, left, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Jan. 28.   © Reuters

Chatter in diplomatic corridors has it that China's roles in the global economy and the WHO itself may have played a factor in the U.N. agency's delay in declaring an emergency. An emergency declaration would undoubtedly squeeze China's tourism and logistics chains, exposing President Xi Jinping and his leadership team to increased public dissatisfaction.

When Tedros met with Xi in Beijing on Tuesday, the Chinese leader explained how the country had released information about the epidemic in a timely, open and responsible manner and had enhanced cooperation with the international community, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported. Xi told Tedros that he "believes that the WHO and the international community will assess the epidemic situation in an objective, just, calm and reasonable way," according to Xinhua.

It was seen as an expression of hope that the U.N. agency would refrain from designating the epidemic a global health emergency.

When Tedros met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that day, he said that the WHO does not recommend the evacuation of nationals, citing his confidence in China's epidemic prevention and control abilities, Xinhua reported. The U.S. and Japan flew citizens out of Wuhan by chartered planes the next day.

A source familiar with the WHO's decision-making acknowledged that the agency had to consider not just the infectiousness of the coronavirus, but the economic impact of declaring a health emergency. China accounted for 4% of global gross domestic product in 2003, a share that has since grown to 17%.

"China and the WHO have extremely close ties," a diplomatic source in Beijing said. China is the world's second-largest financial contributor to the U.N. The WHO's previous director-general, Margaret Chan, was nominated to the post by the Chinese government after spearheading Hong Kong's response to SARS.

Using its diplomatic weight, China has blocked Taiwan's attendance at the WHO's annual health assembly since 2017, the year after China skeptic Tsai Ing-wen became the island's president.

China also provides significant aid to Ethiopia, the home country of current WHO chief Tedros. And Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, is a longtime WHO goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

While declaring an emergency, Tedros did hold back from imposing travel or trade restrictions. "There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade," he said Thursday in Geneva.

Nonetheless, WHO members have begun erecting their own barriers.

The U.S. State Department is urging Americans to not travel to mainland China, the highest of its four travel advisory levels. while Russia has shut 16 border checkpoints with China.

The WHO has come under fire for its response to recent outbreaks. It declared a global emergency during the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, but was later accused of overreacting when the disease turned out to have a limited impact. It waited months to declare an emergency during the Ebola epidemic of 2014 to 2016, drawing criticism for dragging its feet as the death toll swelled.

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