Global fissures are opening up in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is caught in the middle of it.
Earlier this year, reports in the international media suggested that China had covered up early cases of the infection to salvage the government’s image. Late last year, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission falsely stated that the virus could not be transmitted human-to-human. Beijing then withheld vital information on the infection from the WHO for as long as two months.
On its part, the WHO has walked very close to Beijing’s line. In mid-January, the WHO tweeted in support of China’s claim that Covid-19 does not transmit from human to human. Then, even as reports on China’s early cover-up surfaced, its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Beijing’s containment efforts. “China has bought the world time,” he said at the Munich Security Conference in February. Tedros also criticised countries early on for applying travel restrictions out of China, before inevitably advocating lockdowns and social distancing.
Critics in India and America contrast the WHO’s ongoing tightrope walk to its decisive action following the 2003 outbreak of SARS in China. Back then, the WHO made history by declaring its first-ever travel advisory, asking people to avoid going in and out of southern China. Its then-Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland also criticised the Chinese for similarly covering up the outbreak early on. And in the aftermath of the epidemic, the WHO adopted new International Health Regulations to prevent future cover-ups.
What has changed? Ironically, the WHO’s cautious approach to Beijing is the inevitable result of Trump’s own foreign policy. While America has been withdrawing itself from multilateral leadership in the last few years, China has been steadily increasing its own influence.
Take Ethiopia - the home country of the current WHO chief. In 1991, the left-leaning Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power in Addis Ababa and soon began courting Beijing. Three years into office, the EPRDF sent a delegation to Beijing to seek “China’s advice on Ethiopia’s development”.
Then, in 2005, there came a significant turning point. Ethiopia held a relatively free, fair and open election that year – and it resulted in a poor result for the EPRDF. Opposition groups, who had since then sat on the margins of Ethiopian politics, captured a third of the seats in parliament. In response, the EPRDF cracked down on political rivals.
The EPRDF then began looking east to Beijing. Beijing responded: China helped the EPRDF set up a central party school on the lines of the Chinese Communist Party’s own school in Beijing. It also designed a party cadre education system for the EPRDF, teaching them how to manage their own organisational structure, build an ideology, develop a propaganda system, and so on. Senior Ethiopian training delegations regularly visited Beijing for further education, each time focusing on a different theme – from poverty alleviation to youth development. The mentorship worked. For nearly three decades, the EPRDF ruled in Addis Ababa as a virtual one-party state, winning elections comfortably each time (until it was dissolved in 2019).
Tedros himself is a veteran of Ethiopian politics and served as health minister and foreign minister for several years. In 2017, when he came up for election to the post of WHO chief, China duly supported its ally. Months before the election, Beijing invited him to speak at Peking University on global health issues.
China’s support for allies like Ethiopia has run in parallel to its increasing footprint at the UN. Beijing is now the second-largest contributor to the UN budget – accounting for 12% of its funding as opposed to just 1% two decades ago. It is also now the only country in UN history to feature among both the top financiers as well as the top troop contributors for UN peacekeeping. More importantly, it is forging strong alliances with other developing countries and supporting the candidature of their officials to top UN posts – as with Ethiopia and Tedros.
Contrast all this with Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy. Over the course of his presidency, Trump has vilified allies across the board, accusing them of feeding off Washington’s generosity. He has also attacked UN agencies and institutions and consistently advocated cutting US funding for the organisation. Even in the midst of the current fiasco, Trump’s first instinct towards the WHO was to threaten funding cuts.
Populism in democratic countries now pulls away strongly from multilateralism. Commentary in both India and the US is now increasingly sceptical of the UN and its agencies. Even more worryingly, in the US, right-wing nationalists see multilateralism and global cooperation as a sign of weakness, thereby making multilateral decision-making in UN ‘talk shops’ increasingly costly for the President.
This is a worrying trend. Abandoning global decision-making forums and yielding them to China is a problem for both India and the US. In the aftermath of World War II, America built a multitude of international institutions and norms in order to increase transparency and accountability in policymaking around the world. This made globalisation possible, as businesses and people could transact across borders without the threat of being mistreated by foreign governments. Both American and Indian private sector firms, investors and employees gained significantly from such coordination.
For China, however, international institutions and norms are a hindrance. Take the WHO norms regarding transparency during the outbreak of an epidemic, for instance. Such norms undercut Beijing’s sovereignty and open the Communist Party to questions from outside. In recent years, China has tried to find a path around such accountability by filling up the power vacuum that Trump is leaving behind.
America still accounts for the lion’s share of funding at the UN. But as Washington practises scorn towards its own allies and the UN, international institutions will inevitably begin turning more and more towards Beijing for leadership.
(c) 2020, Deccan Herald