In recent months, the term Chinese coronavirus has been deemed taboo, xenophobic and racist. (This largely became the case ever since U.S. President Donald Trump adopted what was already a widely used mainstream media-coined phrase.) But perhaps COVID-19 should not have been called the Chinese coronavirus in the first place; not if we’re looking for the main reason this disease became a pandemic.
As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put it: “This is an enemy that we have underestimated from Day 1, and we have paid the price dearly.”
And we continue to underestimate this enemy. There still continues to be a dearth of information about this mystery virus and sadly that knowledge vacuum has been filled with the tried and tested political blame game. Here in Saint Lucia, Prime Minister Allen Chastanet has been heavily criticised in some quarters for his handling of the crisis. Some went so far as wishing the man dead a few weeks ago, when fears arose he may have contracted the highly contagious, deadly disease.
Boris Johnson has been similarly criticised in his own country, not managing to catch a break from a press eager to point the finger of blame, even after he was placed in ICU.
But ever topping the list of media piñata is the aforementioned US President. As the number of infected continued to rise in that country, the mainstream media continued to escalate its criticism of Trump, some even going so far as laying the blame at the feet of the political firebrand. Case in point, The Atlantic’s David Frume’s column entitled “This Is Trump’s Fault”.
“Trump now fancies himself a ‘wartime president.’ How is his war going?” asked Frume last week. “By the end of March, the coronavirus had killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks. By the first weekend in April, the virus had killed more Americans than any single battle of the Civil War. By Easter, it may have killed more Americans than the Korean War. On the present trajectory, it will kill, by late April, more Americans than Vietnam.”
Frume’s point? “That the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault. The utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault.”
Why Frume is so quick to skip past what he first acknowledges; “that the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault”; probably speaks to the heart of the problem of media coverage: in the absence of any real knowledge of this disease, the simplest solution for the politically charged media is to blame [insert name of political leader].
Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times last week, that “we’re now in the midst of a global pandemic. The president’s pathology is endangering not just institutions, but lives.” Adding that “every aspect of Trump’s crisis management has been annexed by his psychopathology.”
The columnist wrote this despite acknowledging in the same piece that “The American Psychiatric Association’s code of ethics expressly forbids its members from diagnosing a public figure from afar.”
More from the New York Times. Frank Bruni for some reason was compelled to pen an entire column alleging the president is not putting up enough of an act during this crisis, “What’s the point of having a showman for a president” wrote Bruni, “if he can’t put on the right kind of show?”
He wasn’t done with the seemingly pointless questions: “Do you remember President George W. Bush’s remarks at Ground Zero in Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?” Bruni asked.
“Do you remember President Barack Obama’s news conference after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 28 people, including 20 children, dead? I do. Freshest in my memory is how he fought back tears. He was hurting. He cared.”
Bruni’s near endless line of questioning finally led to this: “Do you remember the moment when President Trump’s bearing and words made clear that he grasped not only the magnitude of this rapidly metastasizing pandemic but also our terror in the face of it?”
“It passed me by, maybe because it never happened.”
“In Trump’s predecessors,” the columnist continues “for all their imperfections, I could sense the beat of a heart and see the glimmer of a soul.” How much of a glimmer did Bruni perceive of Bush’s soul during the Katrina disaster, I wonder, or of Obama’s during Benghazi? But I’ll move on.
Predictably, Bruni contends that he’s seen no such soul in Trump.
As I earlier stated, in the absence of any real knowledge about this disease, the simplest solution for a politically charged media is to blame [insert name of political leader]. Especially Donald Trump. Politics is just a topic the media is far more comfortable with than a health pandemic which has confounded even scientists and medical experts.
So it was a more than welcome surprise to come across this headline in the Atlantic of all rags: How China Deceived the WHO.
Unlike much in the mainstream, –like this Kaitlyn Tiffany puff piece in The Atlantic, that ‘America Is Thirsty for Anthony Fauci During the pandemic,’ and that ‘a 79-year-old immunologist is becoming as crushable as a pop star”– Kathy Gilsinan’s piece addresses the billion tonned elephant in the room: that this pandemic indeed goes back to China. What makes the piece even more compelling is Gilsinan’s willingness to look closely at the WHO’s complicity in all of this.
“Back in January,” opened Gilsinan, “when the pandemic now consuming the world was still gathering force, a Berkeley research scientist named Xiao Qiang was monitoring China’s official statements about a new coronavirus then spreading through Wuhan and noticed something disturbing. Statements made by the World Health Organization, the international body that advises the world on handling health crises, often echoed China’s messages.”
“Particularly at the beginning,” Qiang told Gilsinan. “It was shocking when I again and again saw WHO’s [director-general], when he spoke to the press … almost directly quoting what I read on the Chinese government’s statements”.
Gilsinan added that the most notorious example of this sort of propaganda parroting came in the form of a single tweet from the WHO account on January 14: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.” That same day, the Wuhan Health Commission’s public bulletin declared, “We have not found proof for human-to-human transmission.”
“This, we now know, was catastrophically untrue,” declared Gilsinan of the information the WHO was pedaling, seemingly at the behest of China “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.”
Put more bluntly: “The WHO 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. 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.”
She continued: “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.”
Here, unfortunately, Gilsinan falls into the very trap she highlights the WHO has done; trusting reports coming out of China. How does Gilsinan or anyone for that matter, know, that Li Wenliang died of the coronavirus? He reportedly died of the coronavirus with those reports coming from China, soon after the Chinese claimed he was “spreading rumours” about the disease.
“We all mourn the loss of a fellow physician and colleague” said Michael Ryan of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, who according to Gilsinan stopped short of condemning China for accusing Li.
Gilsinan would go on to state that to this point, the WHO has yet to condemn China for any of the misinformation it has disseminated about the disease.
Only in late January “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.” Gilsinan wrote.
“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.”
Keep in mind this is the very WHO director-general who as Breitbart reports, had this to say, days after Trump banned U.S. travel from China: “Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit.”
Now, to benefit ‘public health’, practically every country in the world has issued even more stringent travel restrictions than those initially imposed by ‘Orange Man Bad’. The WHO’s unproven contention that such restrictions can have “the effect of increasing fear and stigma” has long since vanished into thin air in the face of hard reality.
And like much of what the Organisation has stated, it has failed to stand the test of time.
As Trump recently said: “They [WHO] were wrong about a lot of things. We want to look into the World Health Organization because they really called it wrong. They missed the call, they could have called it months earlier, they would have known, they should have known, and they probably did know.”
“They seem to be very China-centric.” Trump added. “That’s a nice way of saying it, but they seem to be very China-centric, and they seem to err always on the side of China.”
The WHO has erred far too much on this disease in general and as Gilsinan points out, is unwilling to shoulder any responsibility for the outbreak. Said Charles Clift, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Center for Universal Health who worked at the WHO from 2004 to 2006: “We’d like more transparency, that’s true, but if countries find reasons to not be transparent, it’s difficult to know what we can do about it.”
An astonishing statement given the mandate of the WHO and also given the fact they have yet to condemn China for this lack of transparency. What that organisation should have done was its job, doing some actual research into China’s claims before recommending them to the rest of the world.
To go back to Xiao Qiang, the Berkely research scientist cited in Gilsinan’s piece: “The WHO at that time didn’t do their job. The opposite: They actually compounded Chinese authorities’ misinformation for a few weeks. That is, to me, unforgivable.”
The world should hold the World Health Organisation accountable for this blunder, rather than continuing to stew in petty national politics. It’s bigger than that. Our various leaders have been just as clueless as the rest of us with respect to this disease, with most if not all of their misinformation coming from the WHO. True, the Chinese government spread the propaganda: you’d be hard pressed to find a government that doesn’t. But the world did not buy what the Chinese government sold; not before it was sanctioned, “with its own imprimatur” as Gilsinan put it, by the WHO.