Don’t say WHO didn’t warn us — it did


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One of the most confounding aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic must be that we were warned, forcefully and repeatedly, that this was going to happen.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/04/2020 (835 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One of the most confounding aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic must be that we were warned, forcefully and repeatedly, that this was going to happen.

In September 2019, about 60 days before a mysterious new pneumonia-like illness appeared China, and about 90 days before China formally identified a new coronavirus, an organization called the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) issued a frightening report called A World At Risk.

A creation of the World Bank Group and the World Health Organization, the GPMB was formed in 2018 largely out of concerns identified following the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In this, its first major report, the board painted a harrowing picture of global pandemic preparedness.

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam was the target of an ill-informed attack by Conservative MP Derek Sloan, who is running for the party’s leadership.

“If it is true to say ‘what’s past is prologue’ then there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly five per cent of the world’s economy. A global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not prepared.”

All of the shortcomings that we have experienced in our pandemic response were outlined in this report in detailed, prescient fashion: insufficient supplies of swabs, specimen containers and reagents needed to test for the virus; global shortages of masks, gloves, gowns, face shields and ventilators; public-health agencies starved of resources; mass confusion about the closing of borders, the cessation of domestic and international travel, and shelter-in-place orders.

There isn’t much value in having the authors of this report and their sponsoring agencies engage in a lusty “we told you so.” But it should be said that they did tell us what was going to happen, and we ignored them.

On that basis alone, any attempt to blame the WHO and other international agencies for leaving us unprepared for COVID-19 seems quite ridiculous. But that did not stop Ontario Tory MP Derek Sloan, a candidate for the leadership of his party.

In Twitter video and in a statement issued April 21, Sloan attacked Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, for deferring to Chinese officials who, it has been established, concealed the existence of the coronavirus when it was first identified last fall. Sloan noted that Tam, who serves on a WHO oversight committee, failed Canada when it came to pressing China for more transparency.

“The truth is that the WHO serves the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China,” Sloan wrote in his release, while accusing Tam specifically of “dutifully” repeating the “propaganda” of the Chinese government. “Dr. Tam must now either resign or be fired.”

Many rushed to condemn Sloan for his comments about Tam, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said such intolerance and racism “have no place in our country.” Senior Conservatives, including departing leader Andrew Scheer, did not criticize Sloan who, in the face of a backlash, doubled down on his allegations on Friday.

“We are in a culture where political correctness and identity politics are used as a shield to deflect or even outlaw criticism,” Sloan stated. “Being called a racist for asking questions has been disappointing, though not unexpected.”

Missing from Sloan’s attack, and indeed from the parallel attacks being launched against the WHO by leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump — who withdrew hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the WHO — is the simple fact that the very agency that is the target of their contempt begged us to prepare for a pandemic.

It is the last refuge of scoundrels and cowards to wait until they are in the grips of a crisis to blame the people who warned them it was going to happen.

The WHO is hardly a newcomer to mob-styled attacks. The global health agency operates under the umbrella of the United Nations and, as such, is a popular target for rabid nationalists throughout the world who believe any multi-national agency is a threat to their sovereignty.

Depending on who is making the attack, the WHO has been guilty of acting too quickly and harshly, acting too little and too late, not standardizing the global pandemic response, not recommending a ban on international travel or the use of face masks early enough, or not pressing China for greater transparency in the early days following the detection of the virus.

Is the WHO guilty of any of those transgressions? There is some evidence the global health agency did not challenge China robustly enough early on, was perhaps a little late in declaring COVID-19 a pandemic and supporting measures to stop international air travel and promote the use of non-medical masks in places where social distancing is not possible.

But those who have attempted to lay blame at the feet of the WHO — and that includes some really dense and ill-informed journalists — are ignoring the fact that not only did we collectively dismiss its warnings, but that the agency itself does not have the moral or legal authority to force anyone to do anything.

Decisions on social distancing, sheltering in place, closing the economy and stopping travel were fully made by individual nations, or even jurisdictions within those nations. That’s why some countries that were slow to react were ravaged by COVID-19 and others fared much better.

It’s unlikely that our experience in this pandemic will lead to a massive increase in authority for the WHO. But it should — emphasis on “should” — cause a complete re-think, not only of our pandemic planning, but also our whole approach to governing from both a social and fiscal perspective.

Major decisions about spending and taxation will have to be made against a new backdrop of knowledge of the enormous costs of not preparing for the impact of a pandemic. COVID-19 has not only claimed tens of thousands of lives and ground the global economy to a halt, it has also left our governments in a distinctly weakened, highly vulnerable state.

Government debt is going to skyrocket, reducing fiscal capacity to support core government services of all kinds. Taxation is undoubtedly going to remain at current levels, if not increase as the economy fires back up. Unemployment is likely to surge as well, straining tenuous social safety nets.

For as long as we’ve been told that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, we’ve been ignoring advice to prepare for disasters. Particularly in prosperous, developed nations where somehow we thought that — with the exception of a terrorist attack — we were largely untouchable by any kind of global disaster.

As it turns out, we were very touchable. If and when our lives return to something that bears a vague resemblance to normal, we would all be well advised to direct all of our concern and criticism not at the people whose advice we ignored, but at those of us who did the ignoring.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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