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WHO. The world’s watchdog or China’s poodle?

The book of Leviticus might seem to have little to offer by way of guidance to 21st century life. But there is one particular prohibition which might make us re-consider its relevance at this particular time. In Leviticus,Chapter 11, there is a long list of winged creatures that are described as ‘unclean and not to eat’ and the last one on the list is a bat.

We have been hearing for quite some time now that our abuse of the planet and its biosystems carries a very high environmental and human cost. Messing with animals in unnatural ways is generally not thought about in this context. However, we are beginning to see that some of the deadliest diseases of modern times have entered the human chain from our interaction with wild animals.  The SARS virus which is a variant of covid-19 also originated in bats. The natural carrier of the ebola virus, a quite different and even deadlier disease, is also the bat. Swine ‘flu takes its name from the animal who transmitted it. Most of us are aware that AIDS/HIV originated in Africa but how many of us are aware AIDS/HIV originated in monkeys ? The transfer of all animal borne diseases to humans happens when we suborn them to our purposes, kill them or eat them.

Being stewards of creation,whether you are a person of faith or not, demands we treat all nature with respect. Given that the frightful diseases just mentioned originated in other continents doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons and cautions for us too. Many of the morbidities of western society are attributed at least in part to our diet. While we may not eat exotic wild animals, it is quite likely that some of the byproducts of their slaughter are found in the cosmetics, fashion and household goods we buy.(You would be surprised perhaps to hear where squirrel hair and snail slime can end up).

This is a vexed question in itself but the point I want to raise here is that behaviour has consequences. When things go terribly wrong it is often because we turned a blind eye to other wrong stuff just because it happened out of our line of sight. Or even, more likely, because we don’t want to lose the benefits it brings. That can change of course when the chickens or, we might say in this context, the bats finally come home to roost.

This virus infiltrated our world faster than it should have done because the dogs took their time to bark. The WHO did not put its role as defender of world health first. It put its politics first. To say that no entity or country reacted optimally or could be expected to, given the deadly and unknown nature of the virus, is not true. There were countries,Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam who took the measure of the enemy within days of its first manifestation and in the case of Taiwan, at least, immediately alerted the WHO. Doctors in China who tried to sound the alarm were rounded up and forced to recant. At least one doctor, Ai Fen, has disappeared. All the while, the WHO was content to sing from the official Chinese hymnsheet.

Through its toxic politics, the WHO has proved to be a adjunct carrier of the virus, to Europe, to America, to Africa, to the Middle East, Australia and anywhere else that is not hermetically sealed from the outside world. So there is naturally a lot of criticism of WHO and an urge on the part of some leaders, particularly Donald Trump, to punish them without further delay and call out their politics.

That however is a bit like blaming the bats for the virus.  The WHO is not a free standing organisation.  It is, along with its politics,  the creation of the international community. And it is indeed following the politics of its paymasters. It did not take the decision to regard Taiwan as a non-country. That decision was made by the countries it serves.  So WHO did not discount and discard the advice of Taiwan out of its pro-China leanings, though that certainly was a factor. It was acting according to the norms of international diplomacy. According to those norms, Taiwan, a prosperous, fully democratized country of some 24 million citizens is officially a non entity among the nations of the world. It is not recognized by Ireland or any other EU member.  What is a bit more surprising perhaps it that the country over which Donald Trump presides doesn’t recognise it either.

It must be acknowledged here that the US, unlike Ireland, opposed the UN decision of 1971 to exclude Taiwan in any shape or form from its membership. Nonetheless, it has not chosen to break rank as a number of other countries around the world have done. Of course we can guess why.  It’s because principles don’t get in the way of profit. And China won’t trade with any country that gives diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.

The alignment of WHO with the international community’s real politic, and China’s in the first instance, is nowhere better seen than its its resistance to recommending travel bans to fight the pandemic. Much has been made of Trump’s initial playing down of the threat, not so much of China’s oddly enough, but it was Trump who first banned travel in a series of escalating moves. He was criticised widely for that at the time and that ctiticism was led by WHO. To this point in time, the official stance of WHO is that ‘travel bans don’t stop pandemics’. Most governments including our own eventually have chosen not to follow WHO’s counsel in this key matter.

At this point, there are many other medical and scientific institutes and independent experts feeding into the discussion on best practice and of course the world is on a new learning curve. WHO has become less relevant and less respected whatever about the bruhaha over Trump’s decision to defund them until its China friendly head, Dr Tedros, steps aside.

It is hardly surprising that the usual Trumpphobes in the media can’t see that WHO has a huge credibility problem that is impacting its ability to lead the world’s response in the current pandemic.  Notwithstanding the fact that WHO’s politics are largely a reflection of the politics of its paymasters, it is, because of its crucial role at this time, probably the best place to start the re-appraisal and reform of geopolitical imbalances. Whether that should happen now or when the crisis subsides is a matter for debate.

For a long time now the west has been preaching the gospel of human rights to less consequential countries around the world while being culpably blind to the most appalling abuses of human rights in China.  The same can be said of Venezuela too, if you happen to be a leftist politician like Clare Daly.

But it is China which bizarrely titles itself the ‘Peoples’ Republic of China’, even though it is governed without the consent of its people, who has captured the governments of the democratized world.  Some more than others perhaps.

Simon Coveney’s incredible commitment to quadruple Ireland’s contribution to WHO and presumably set an example for other countries to follow raises questions about who is pulling the strings here. The fact that this decision to spend public money was taken without a Dail vote is extraordinary. More extraordinary is the implicit exoneration of WHO for its conspicuous failures in its response to the pandemic.

No criticism of WHO, no criticism of China from the Irish government. On the contrary, a warm telephone call of gratitude from the Taoiseach to China’s Prime Minister for PPE we were paying through the nose for. And now an even more questionable offer of a multi million donation from the Irish taxpayer to WHO, the world’s health watchdog but shown to be more like China’s poodle in this crisis.

Are there dots to be joined between Leo’s call and Simon’s largesse?  The question is surely worth a thought.


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