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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

COVID-19: the Abject Failure of the (Dis)United Nations

Throughout the crisis, the United Nations’ feverish desire to placate China’s despotic regime has permanently damaged its credibility and undermined the response to the pandemic.

Apr 4, 2020

Throughout the United Nations’ 70-year history, the organization has never been as important as it is now. On paper, an organization like the U.N. is ideally placed to handle a worldwide epidemic like Covid-19. Viruses do not discriminate. They do not respect borders. They have to be handled in a truly global manner, something that only the U.N. is equipped to do. More importantly, its health body, the World Health Organization, has traditionally been among the most powerful international organizations in the world, which makes it the most suitable to handle a pandemic. Moreover, unlike security or economics, public health has long been a topic where member states have regularly displayed commitment to multilateralism.
It is this immense capability that makes the response of the U.N. and the WHO in particular so disappointing. Throughout the crisis, their feverish desire to placate China’s despotic regime has permanently damaged their credibility and undermined the response to the pandemic.
The joint Chinese-WHO cover-up began on New Year’s Eve, when most of the world was blissfully unaware that a virus was going to change humanity forever. On that date, Taiwanese health officials hypothesized that the virus was being spread through human-to-human transmission and reported this to the WHO. The global health body failed to relay this information to the health departments of its member states, let alone to the general public. Moreover, it continued to exclude Taiwan from the organization, so as to not upset China. On Jan. 14, 15 days after Taiwan’s warning, the WHO was still parroting the Chinese government’s official line that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.”
Some may defend the organization, arguing that such deference was needed to ensure Chinese cooperation. Perhaps this is true, but why was it necessary for the WHO to publicize the unverified Chinese findings? One should remember that this is the same government that has built gruesome concentration camps and then described them as “re-education”-camps. In December, that same government arrested a doctor who warned fellow doctors about the new virus. The WHO decided to treat the words of such a government as sacrosanct, even when evidence to the contrary was available.
The obsequious callousness of the WHO cost lives. The initial denial of human-to-human transmission slowed down preparations for the pandemic across the world. As Chen Chien-jen, Taiwan’s vice-president, said that “an opportunity to raise the alert level both in China and the wider world was lost.” Even when human-to-human transmission was eventually confirmed by China itself, the WHO continued to act like a third-grade mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party. It delayed the declaration of a public health emergency and complied with China’s requests to not label the virus as “dangerous” in a joint mission report. The Director-General of the WHO even praised Xi Jinping specifically, describing his efforts as “very rare leadership.” Even more pathetically, the WHO praised China’s “openness,” even after it was evident that the regime had covered up the outbreak for months. The WHO may have been asked to bend, but instead it crawled.
The U.N.’s other institutions haven’t exactly found their glory either. The General Assembly has restricted itself to passing wishy-washy resolutions calling for global solidarity, as is its wont. The Security Council has not even managed that, as China blocked a resolution that describes the pandemic as a threat to “international peace and security.” Another resolution has stalled because the United States and China started squabbling like children about the name of the pandemic. Perhaps there is no greater metaphor for the current state of the United Nations.
I do not intend to belittle the role of the U.N. in the international system. Regardless of what its critics say, the United Nations has long been a force for good. It helped facilitate the late 20th-century decline in inter-state conflicts, helped improve global food security, promoted decolonization and successfully contained epidemics like SARS and Ebola.
But this crisis is so immense and the U.N.’s initial response has been so irresponsible that it threatens to wipe away 70 years of legitimacy and multilateralism. Inevitably, valid questions will be raised.
What is the utility of an inclusive international organization if it cannot be used to coordinate a response to a global pandemic? What use is an international health body like the WHO if it prioritizes the fragile egos of Chinese leaders over global public health?
To a certain extent, this predicament was inevitable. After all, most intergovernmental organizations with limited autonomous power tend to be a reflection of their most powerful members. And at the moment, the U.N. reflects the moral apathy and malevolence of the United States, China and Russia. In that context, it is easy to assume a defeatist posture and prematurely declare the end of multilateralism.
However, in the middle of a global pandemic, defeatism is moral cowardice. The U.N. can no longer sit on the sidelines. It must immediately serve as a platform for multilateral cooperation. The WHO must coordinate the exchange of personal protective equipment and ventilators, especially in the Global South. And more importantly, the global health body must include Taiwan and push for greater transparency in China, if only to make up for its prior sins. The Economic and Social Council must mobilize to provide a substantial economic package for developing countries, even if the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank choose not to cooperate. The Security Council must support the Secretary General’s push for a global ceasefire.
The responsibility for such cooperation not only lies with U.N. institutions but also with every member state that still believes in multilateralism and the need for strong international institutions. Any failure to do so will be fatal for many, including perhaps the United Nations itself.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is a contributing writer. Email him at
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