Politics of Coronavirus

US-China spat hampers global response to Covid-19

US-China spat hampers global response to Covid-19
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and US President Donald Trump (Photos: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier) | EPA-EFE / Yuri Gripas / Pool)

‘Please don’t politicise this virus,’ WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus responded at a press briefing in Geneva.

The bitter geopolitical rivalry between the US and China is undermining global efforts to combat the coronavirus, paralysing the UN Security Council and now threatening to cut the funding of the World Health Organisation (WHO) which is leading the international response to the pandemic.

US President Donald Trump is determined that China should be publicly named and shamed for allegedly concealing the emergence of the virus in Wuhan, Hubei province, late last year.

Mainly because he accuses the Geneva-based WHO of helping China to cover up its culpability for the outbreak of the virus, Trump threatened this week to withdraw critical US funding of the WHO – which amounted to more than $400-million last year, almost double the second-largest member state contribution.

“Please don’t politicise this virus,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus responded at a press briefing in Geneva on Wednesday, urging political leaders to “please quarantine politicising Covid.”

“The focus of all political parties should be to save their people,” Tedros said.

“If you don’t want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicising it.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa and other African leaders also sprang to the defence of Tedros, an Ethiopian. 

The US-China spat has also spilled over into the UN Security Council in New York where both governments have been blocking attempts to pass a resolution which would authorise that body to coordinate a global response to the pandemic.

The US has been insisting that any resolution should explicitly state that the pandemic began in China while Beijing completely opposes such reference, regarding it as an attempt to politicise what should be an apolitical global response to a health crisis.

While much of the blame has been allocated to Washington for taking this stance, China has also been criticised by some nations for trying to keep the coronavirus off the Security Council agenda, on the grounds that as a health issue, it should be left to the WHO and other UN agencies. It has argued that the Security Council’s mandate is only to address threats to international peace and security which it says the coronavirus pandemic is not. 

And so Beijing failed to propose any discussion on the coronavirus during its presidency of the Security Council last month.  

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for “ a war-time plan to fight” the coronavirus,  “a large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response.” Some nations regard this as a challenge to the UN Security Council to take the lead, seeing the pandemic as a threat to global peace and security because of fears that the virus and the lockdowns most countries have imposed to try to contain it could destabilise economies and in turn stability.

So, under the new Security Council presidency for April of the Dominican Republic, the Security Council is scheduled to hold a closed session on Thursday this week “regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the issues that fall under the UNSC mandate”. Guterres is due to participate in the session on Thursday afternoon as a briefer.

As a non-permanent member of the Security Council for 2019 and 2020, South Africa will also participate in the meeting.  France, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, is trying to organise an unprecedented summit of all five – the US, China, Russia, the UK and France itself (the so-called P5) – to try to resolve the prolonged impasse among them on a range of critical global issues. 

But South Africa is completely opposed to the leadership of the global fight against Covid-19 being entrusted to the UN Security Council and is emphatic that Guterres has not called for this. Pretoria, and some other nations, fear that transferring leadership of the crisis from the WHO to the Security Council will allow the P5, which dominate the Security Council, to manipulate the crisis and pursue their own narrow interests. 

Pretoria says the way the Trump administration has politicised the Covid-19 pandemic to try to settle scores with China “should make one very worried if a matter such as the pandemic is brought to the Council.”

Trump, who is under considerable fire in the US for his own delayed response to the crisis, has blamed China and now seems to be trying to shift the blame to the WHO. He tweeted this week that “WHO really blew it” and added the WHO was “very China-centric” in its approach, suggesting it had collaborated in Beijing’s alleged efforts to minimise the severity of the outbreak when it began. 

Trump declared he would cut funding from the WHO, before backtracking and saying he would “strongly consider” such a move, Al Jazeera reported. The network quoted WHO officials denying that it had been “China-centric.”

“We are still in the acute phase of a pandemic, so now is not the time to cut back on funding,” Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, told a virtual briefing in response to a question about Trump’s remarks.

Dr Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the WHO director-general, also defended the UN agency’s relationship with China, saying its work with Beijing authorities was important to understand the outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China.

“It was absolutely critical in the early part of this outbreak to have full access to everything possible, to get on the ground and work with the Chinese to understand this,” he told reporters. “This is what we did with every other hard-hit country like Spain and had nothing to do with China specifically.”

African leaders have also leapt to the defence of the WHO. Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the African Union Commission tweeted: “Surprised to learn of a campaign by the US govt against @WHO’s global leadership. The @AfricanUnion fully supports @WHO and@DrTedros. The focus should remain on collectively fighting #Covid19 as a united global community. The time for accountability will come.” 

Faki later tweeted that he was not implying that it was the WHO which would have to give account.

President Ramaphosa replied to Faki’s first message by tweeting that, “The most potent weapon against #Covid19 and its devastating health, social and economic impact is international cooperation & solidarity, which is why the exception leadership displayed daily by @WHO 7 @DrTedros during an unprecedented global health crisis is incalculable.”

Namibian President Hage Geingob, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the Nigerian Presidency also replied to Faki’s message of support by adding their own.

Trump’s conservative Republican allies have also been highly critical of the WHO and particularly Tedros. Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham vowed there would be no funding for the WHO under Tedros’s leadership.

“They’ve been deceptive, they’ve been slow, and they’ve been Chinese apologists,” he told Fox News.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio called for the resignation of Tedros, saying “he allowed Beijing to use the WHO to mislead the global community,” Al Jazeera reported. DM


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