India and the politics of Covid pandemic

World Health Assembly, decision-making body of WHO, meets in Geneva every May. This year’s is a virtual meeting. File photo

The World Health Assembly’s virtual meeting on May 18-19 has brought into focus the politics of the Covid-19 pandemic in the international arena. The WHA is the decision-making body of the 194-member World Health Organisation (WHO). 

The virtual meeting took place in the backdrop of the sensational claims by the US President Donald Trump and his state secretary Mike Pompeo in recent weeks that they are in possession of “enormous evidence” to support their theory that COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

The WHO has agreed to examine “lessons learned” from the member countries’ responses. It proposes to hold a “comprehensive evaluation” in response to a draft motion, co-sponsored by the African Group’s 54 member states. The conference paper at the WHA meet was backed by countries that included all 27 European Union member states and it named neither China nor Wuhan. 

Neither Trump nor Pompeo participated in the WHA event. Instead, they deputed the US Health Secretary Alex Azar who fired away at the WHO for allowing the coronavirus outbreak to “spin out of control”. Without naming China, he blamed “at least one member state” for having “made mockery of their transparency obligations, at tremendous cost for the entire world.” 

Meanwhile, the White House has begun signalling that Trump may have second thoughts regarding the freezing of the US funding for WHO. Trump had earlier eviscerated the WHO, alleging China controlled it and that it was grossly negligent in the early days of the corona outbreak. 

On Friday night, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who is close to Trump, broke the news that the Trump administration was “on the brink of resuming US funding” of the WHO. Carlson aired a draft letter prepared by the White House which said that despite the WHO’s “shortcomings,” Trump wanted to see the organisation live up to its potential “during this global crisis” and has, therefore, decided to “work with the WHO and agree to pay up to what China pays in assessed contributions.”

A day later, on Saturday, in a tweet to Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs, who is another favourite TV host of the president, Trump signalled, “Lou, this is just one of numerous concepts being considered under which we would pay 10% of what we have been paying over many years, matching much lower China payments. Have not made final decision. All funds are frozen. Thanks!” 

Trump’s latest stance is not about punishing WHO but aims to bring US’ future payments to the body strictly on par with China’s. But Xi has raised the bar to $2 billion. Trump is finding himself between the rock and a hard place. 

Whipping up Sinophobia may help Trump divert public attention from his mismanagement of the Covid crisis in America where fatalities are nearing 100000. But he has failed to produce a shred of evidence to implicate the WHO in a cover-up or to substantiate the scandalous allegation that the coronavirus leaped out of a Chinese lab. The tidal wave of criticism by the international community has dented the US’ global standing. 

The WHO agreed on Monday to a call from over 110 countries for an independent review of the global coronavirus response. China has sprung a surprise by backing such an investigation. The other contentious item pushed by the US — Taiwan’s admission as ‘observer’ in WHO – found no traction, either. 

The WHA conference paper says that an investigation will seek to “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions.” Neither China nor Wuhan has been named. 

Clearly, China has gone on the diplomatic offensive. Chinese President Xi Jinping accepted the invitation to address the WHA and went on to make a landmark speech. Xi announced a series of concrete measures to boost global fight against COVID-19 including providing international aid. 

Importantly, Xi announced, “China will provide $2 billion over two years to help with COVID-19 response and with economic and social development in affected countries, especially developing countries.” He has thrown down the gauntlet to Trump to come up with a matching offer. 

Xi also made a dramatic announcement that “COVID-19 vaccine development and deployment in China, when available, will be made a global public good. This will be China’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries.” This puts Trump in a fix. Trump’s estimation is that tons of money can be made by marketing abroad any US-made vaccine at exorbitant price, as western Pharma companies do. 

Xi said China will bolster support for the hardest-hit countries under the greatest strain of debt service so that they could tide over the current difficulties. He announced China’s readiness to implement the Debt Service Suspension Initiative of G20 for the poorest countries. 

In retrospect, the WHO secretary-general Tedros Adhanom (former Health Minister and Foreign Minister of Ethiopia) did the right thing by holding his ground. In a snub to Trump the participants in the virtual meeting including European countries such as France voiced resounding support for WHO. It won’t be a pleasant sight now for Trump to bend before an African leader.

The tidings from Geneva suggest China’s surge on the world stage. This entire episode underscores once again the steady drain of American influence in world affairs.

India would do well to bear this in mind. It was completely unnecessary for External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to have rushed to salvage the reputation of Pompeo (and the US) in this morbid affair on the eve of the WHA meet. It’s entirely up to Pompeo to produce the “enormous evidence” regarding the so-called Wuhan virus. Why should Jaishankar rush to cover his backside? It smacks of exhibitionistic disorder unworthy of India.