President Xi Jinping has already written a modest account of the glorious role of the Chinese Communist party’s leadership in combating the latest coronavirus and the superiority of socialism with Chinese characteristics in vanquishing Covid-19. It may be a case of premature publication as A Great Power’s Battle Against Epidemic has not yet made its way into bookstores. Senior cadres have praised Comrade Xi as a ‘sea-stabilising holy cudgel,’ a magical weapon in the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, but Chinese netizens have not been as effusive. ‘No vaccine, no antidote, but there’s a book,’ wrote one on WeChat, a comment which the censors promptly deleted after it was shared multiple times.
We shall have to wait to see what credit Xi gives to the World Health Organisation — which has played an extraordinary role in attempting to whitewash China’s appalling mismanagement of the outbreak — but its Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, seems to have stepped straight off the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief.Like Seth, ‘Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University,’ Tedros was educated in England and set about modernising Ethiopia after joining the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and becoming health and foreign minister. It is alleged that he covered up three cholera epidemics by labelling them ‘acute watery diarrhoea’ which deterred UN officials from providing aid and vaccines. Far from hindering his career, Tedros was enthusiastically backed by China for the top job at WHO. He set the tone for his tenure by making Robert Mugabe a Goodwill Ambassador in recognition of his contribution to Zimbabwe’s healthcare.
Tedros replaced Margaret Chan, who, as director of health in Hong Kong, downplayed the severity of Avian flu in 1997 by telling people ‘I eat chicken every day.’ When SARS broke out in southern China, she dutifully spouted Beijing’s bromides instead of responding rapidly to the illness which led to 299 deaths in Hong Kong. As D-G at WHO, she said, after a visit to North Korea in 2010, that at least there was no obesity. And her slow response to the 2013-15 Ebola outbreak was savaged for contributing to more than 11,000 preventable deaths.
So, no one should be surprised when Tedros displayed a gift for black humour worthy of Waugh claiming on January 28 that China has set ‘a new standard for outbreak control,’ and praised its ‘openness to sharing information.’ Swiss genomic research reveals the virus was first transmitted between humans in China as early as the first half of November 2019. The Lancet reports that the symptom onset of Wuhan’s Patient Zero was Dec 1, 2019. By December 31 there were 59 suspected cases and an epidemiological alert was issued. On 1 January, the Huanan seafood market was shut down. By 2 January, 41 patients were laboratory-confirmed with the 2019-nCoV infection in Wuhan. What was China doing, apart from punishing doctors for spreading ‘rumours’ about the contagion? They locked down military installations in Wuhan to prevent them getting the virus. They locked down the internet to prevent the true story going viral. But they didn’t lock down Wuhan and Hubei Province until 23 January, after 5 million people had left to celebrate Chinese New Year — which started on January 25 — all over the world.
Where was the WHO? On 23 January, its emergency committee was divided on whether to declare a public health emergency of international concern but Tedros, while praising the Wuhan lockdown, said it was only an emergency in China. When he finally made the declaration, a week later, cases had increased tenfold to 7,781 across 18 countries. Yet in the agenda of the board’s meeting on 3 February, ‘crisis emergency and response’ was covered under item 15 on the agenda, not far ahead of the all-important item 23, the Geneva building renovation strategy.
The WHO’s most important task is to prevent the international spread of contagion through timely, transparent communication and international coordination. When the SARS outbreak occurred in 2002-03 WHO was led by Gro Harlem Brundtland who was praised for her handling of the crisis. She publicly criticised China for failing to quickly report the first cases and for its lack of cooperation with the international community. Since then China has made sure that the WHO D-Gs kowtow. Despite the US contributing almost $900 million to WHO last year and China contributing about one-tenth of that amount, it is Beijing that calls the shots. The day after Tedros was elected he told Chinese media that he would continue to support the ‘One China’ principle by excluding Taiwan.
This turns out to have been a blessing. Forced to rely on its resources, stung by 73 deaths during SARS — the highest number outside China and Hong Kong — conscious of the ever-present threat China poses and its lies, and with thousands of Taiwanese heading to Wuhan for Chinese New Year, Taiwan started hearing ‘rumours’ about a SARS-like outbreak in December and started boarding flights to check passengers for symptoms on 31 December. Way ahead of the curve, with a well-resourced, integrated, compulsory single-payer health system that provides comprehensive medical services to all legal residents, Taiwan has only 45 cases and one death, so far.
China has been trying to take over United Nations’ organisations for some time with considerable success. It narrowly missed out on putting its stooge in place at the World Intellectual Property Organisation only a week ago. Chinese nationals are already in charge at four UN organisations including the Food and Agriculture Organisation; the International Civil Aviation Authority, where it is trying to wipe Taiwan — at least its name — off the map and the International Telecommunication Union — which, surprise, surprise, defends Huawei.
The top jobs at five specialised agencies will be filled in 2021, with lobbying by China in Africa well advanced. When President Xi’s tome finally comes out it will no doubt be scattered like confetti around the UN. Yet two millennia of being the source of deadly pestilence and plague pathogens has taught China nothing about food safety and 70 years of Maoist Marxism has turned it into a brutal Leviathan, bludgeoning its medical staff and anyone else who dares to express a thought not authorised by the Chinese Communist Party.
Armed with a hammer and sickle, President Xi may or may not be able to smash the coronavirus in China but he won’t be able to erase the memory of the havoc the Grim Reaper will wreak outside its borders, particularly in developing countries where Xi hopes to be harvesting votes next year.
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