Competing Narratives on Coronavirus Outbreak as Xi, Azar Address WHO Assembly

By Patrick Goodenough | May 18, 2020 | 9:09pm EDT
The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva.  (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

( – Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Monday accused China – without naming it – of making a “mockery” of its obligations under international law to be transparent when confronted by a major health crisis, charging that it had done so “in an apparent attempt to conceal” the coronavirus outbreak.

Addressing the World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly by video, Azar accused the WHO of failures in the face of a member-state not acting “in good faith,” and said the U.N. health agency “must change.”


Chinese President Xi Jinping also addressed the WHA, held virtually this year as a result of the pandemic, and painted a picture of his country as a transparent, responsible – and generous – global player.

“All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility,” Xi asserted. “We have provided information to the WHO and the relevant countries in a most timely fashion.”

He also announced that China will make a $2 billion contribution over the next two years to the global response to the pandemic, especially in the developing world.

And Xi called on the international community to “increase political and financial support to WHO” – an apparent response to the Trump administration’s criticism of, and recent suspension of funding to, the organization.

“We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control,” Azar told the WHA. “There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives.”

“We all must come together to ensure that WHO fulfills its key mandate, and that member states comply with the International Health Regulations,” he said.

“In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak, at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world.”

“We saw that WHO failed at its core mission of information sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith,” Azar continued. “This cannot ever happen again. The status quo is intolerable. WHO must change, and it must become far more transparent and far more accountable.”

The IHRs are a set of rules revised after the 2003 SARS coronavirus epidemic that laid down requirements regarding how countries must disclose information to protect global health. The WHO describes the IHRs, which entered into force on in June 2007, as a “binding instrument of international law.”

They include an obligation to notify the WHO “within 24 hours” of any public health event that could have serious and international consequences.

The U.S. government and other critics say China failed to meet its IHR obligations, and that the WHO fell short in holding Beijing accountable.

Azar said the U.S. supports calls for “an independent review of every aspect of WHO’s response to the pandemic.”

In his speech, Xi said that China, too, supports a formal review once the pandemic is over, but stipulated that it be led by the WHO, and be “conducted in an objective and impartial manner.”


For his part, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom said he supported calls for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” – but one which he said “must encompass the entirety of the response by all actors, in good faith.”

“The world doesn’t need another plan, another system, another mechanism, another committee or another organization,” he said. “It needs to strengthen, implement and finance the systems and organizations it has – including WHO.”

During the ongoing U.S. review into the WHO’s response to the pandemic, administration officials have referred a number of times to the U.S. looking beyond and outside the WHO in its global health support.

“The WHO simply didn’t accomplish what its intended mission was,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on the Fox Business Network earlier this month. “And as the president says about organizations that are multilateral in nature, if they work, fine; if they don’t, we’re simply not going to be part of it.”


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