Senior WHO figures insist it was right not to declare a pandemic sooner
Senior figures at the World Health Organisation have defended its decision not to declare the Covid-19 crisis a pandemic until March 11 last year, insisting governments were well aware of the risk.
Almost a year on from the declaration, WHO director general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus criticised countries that had failed to heed earlier warnings.
He said describing Covid-19 as a public health emergency of international concern – a move the WHO made on January 30 – was already the “highest level of alarm under international law”.
The organisation has been criticised in some quarters for not using the term pandemic sooner by people who think it would have prompted swifter, more effective containment measures.
Some – notably former US president Donald Trump – claimed the WHO delayed branding Covid-19 a pandemic at the request of China.
Dr Tedros told a press briefing that the WHO started holding daily press conferences on the growing threat on February 5, adding: “We continued to sound that alarm loud and clear.
“We continued to warn that the world had another window of opportunity to prepare for and prevent a potential pandemic.
“One of the things we still need to understand is why some countries act on those warnings, while others were slower to react.”
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Covid-19 technical lead, said: “We had used the word pandemic or the potential for this to become a pandemic earlier than March 11 because we were setting things in motion to prevent that from happening, and many countries did act. Many countries that had had some experience of infectious disease – some trauma or some big outbreaks before, to really activate their systems and initiate their systems right away.”
Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies programme, said the slow response of some countries could be blamed on their different perception of risk.
“The question is if we had yelled louder, might more people might have heard us?” he said.
“Unfortunately if you’re in a valley and a dam bursts, you know you are at risk and you take action.
“If you are standing on the mountain top you don’t feel the level of risk until the waters rise.
“I fear too many countries thought they were standing on a mountain top watching the waters rise to consume and overwhelm others, and what everyone didn’t realise is that the waters rose to consume them.”
Dr Ryan said he could understand why members of the public might not understand the seriousness of the phrase “public health emergency of international concern”, but that all governments should have.
“So we have to ask ourselves, yes, maybe we need to shout louder but maybe some people need hearing aids,” he said.
Mr Trump attacked the WHO repeatedly for allegedly being in the pocket of China, despite himself claiming coronavirus was no worse than flu and would go away on its own.
He claimed, without evidence, that “China has total control over the World Health Organisation,” when he announced he was withdrawing US funding from the WHO in May last year.
New President Joe Biden reversed the policy during his first week in office.