WHO do we trust?

Lubna Abdel-Aziz, Tuesday 16 Jun 2020

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Is this the universe we have known or are we suffering from a double delusion? Daunted and dismayed we seem to be floating in some outer space entity, weary, tired and helpless.

Tormented by the loss of so many lives, we walk around like ghosts, faces covered, hands trembling, hearts beating.

In one season our world has turned upside-down, inside-out: “without asking hither hurried whence? /And, without asking wither hurried hence.”

The apparent absurdity of our condition is that it could have all been avoided  had we acted promptly and stopped that venomous virus right where it started.

A look back at history, the first SARS epidemic (2002-2003) was discovered in Guangdong Province in Southern China. The government avoided detection. Notwithstanding the obstinate preference of the Chinese resistance to disclose the truth, the World Health Organisation (WHO), a United Nations agency “that advises the world on handling health crises” pushed the Chinese government to be more transparent by publicly criticising it for trying to conceal the outbreak.

The outbreak was contained to 8,000 cases and 714 deaths.

It defies logic that today, after years of study and research by virologists, a second outbreak would affect 4-7 million people, claim over 400,000 lives and still counting. What went wrong? How and why was a tiny virus allowed to travel willy-nilly from country to country, unhindered, unrestricted, destroying humanity without mercy?

Someone is responsible. Someone is to blame. Who? WHO.

Critics from around the globe have blamed this august body for its tardiness, echoing Chinese authorities and playing down the severity of the outbreak.

Unlike its predecessors, it did not push China on early missteps. Instead, it repeatedly deferred to Beijing, exasperating the spread of the virus.

When cases of a mysterious pneumonia first appeared in Wuhan in December, Chinese health officials silenced whistle-blowers as the virus spread to more than half a dozen countries and forced China to put Wuhan under lockdown.

Even then, WHO was reluctant to declare it a global health emergency.

By mid-January, as the virus spread beyond China’s borders, Chinese officials described it as “preventable and controllable”, claiming there was no evidence it could be transmitted between humans. WHO went along and insisted that human transmission was not proven.

A group of international experts was not allowed to visit Wuhan until mid-February.

No, we cannot trust China. It is acting in its own interests, but WHO we must trust. It is acting in our interest. No more.

Gone are the good old days of WHO, when it was under the direction of Dr Gro Harlem Bradford. Back then, Dr Carlos Urban of WHO, the first to identify SARS 1, warned the world of the outbreak of the disease, and because of his early detection, global surveillance was heightened.

Urban died of SARS in 2003. He was working with WHO in order to save lives. But this was then and this is now — a world of a difference indeed.

The organisation has been faulted by almost all experts, including François Godemont of the Institut Montaigne who stated “WHO’s tardiness or reluctance to call out the problem in full helped delay difficult decisions.”

Xiao Qiang, research scientist of Berkley was more direct: “It was shocking when I again and again saw WHO’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Gheyreyesus, talking to the press, almost directly quoting what I read on the Chinese government statements.”

“What’s wrong with WHO,” asks the Atlantic, a prominent publication. People were dying and WHO was still in denial. What were they waiting for? How can one country out of 198 UN members order the global health organisation who should live and who should die? Such insensitivity to the death and suffering and destruction of humans is not only deplorable, it is unforgivable.

Will our lives ever be the same again? We are still anxious, alarmed and apprehensive. We have questions with no answers. We have a disease with no cure.

What to do? Experts say wash your hands often, others say severely dry skin can allow bacteria to enter.

Do we sit in the sun because heat kills the virus? Not this virus, say experts, it lives and thrives in warm countries.

How about isolation? Many Covid-19 patients were in isolation.

High temperature is a sign of infection. Many infections cause high temperatures.

Ah, finally we got it: wear facemasks. They can keep you from spreading germs and stop germs from getting into you.

Not so fast. There is a row between scientists as to the advantages of facemasks.

You must not touch your mask. You must lessen the volume and quality of speech. Masks fog your eyeglasses and they are uncomfortable if worn for long.

For Covid-19 patients they are intolerable as they worsen breathlessness.

A fraction of carbon dioxide previously exhaled is inhaled at each respiratory cycle causing frequent increase in breathing.

Simon Clarke, of Reading University dismisses masks as precautionary measures, “based on what we know about the dynamic of transmissions and the pathophysiology of Covid-19, the negative effects of wearing masks outweigh the positive.” Dr Antonio Lazzarino of University College, London agrees.

This is too much for a bear to bear. It all could have been confined to Wuhan.

Who deceived us? Who to trust?

Yourself. With common sense protection, we shall live again, love again and laugh again.

What about WHO guidelines?

Frankly, who cares.

“O what a tangled web we weave/ when first we practise to deceive.

  Sir Walter Scott (1772-1832)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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