GENEVA, May 18, (AP): The European Union and other countries on Monday called for an independent evaluation of the World Health Organization’s response to the coronavirus pandemic “to review experience gained and lessons learned.”
The resolution has the support of more than half of WHO’s member countries and will be discussed this week at the decision-making body of the U.N. health agency, being held virtually this year. The proposal is intended to initiate “a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of WHO’s efforts to coordinate the international response to COVID-19, including the functioning of international health law and its actions within the greater U.N. health system.
The move comes amid Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic and WHO’s response to it – and after U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated accusations that WHO helped China cover up the extent of the initial COVID-19 outbreak. Trump has also called for an immediate halt to all U.S. funding to the U.N. health agency.
The EU resolution proposes that the independent evaluation should be initiated “at the earliest appropriate moment” and should, among other issues, examine “the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.” WHO announced the coronavirus outbreak to be a global health emergency on Jan. 30, its highest level of alert. In the following weeks, WHO warned countries there was a narrowing “window of opportunity” to prevent the virus from spreading globally.
WHO officials, however, repeatedly described the transmission of the virus as “limited” and said it wasn’t as transmissible as flu; experts have since said COVID-19 spreads even faster. It declared the outbreak to be a pandemic on March 11, after the virus had killed thousands globally and sparked large epidemics in South Korea, Italy, Iran and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Australia’s foreign minister on Monday welcomed international support for an independent coronavirus pandemic investigation, which has been condemned by China and blamed for a bilateral trade rift.
The European Union has drafted a resolution, cosponsored by dozens of countries including Australia, that has been gaining support and is expected to be approved in a vote at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this week. The resolution before the assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, calls for an evaluation of the origins of the pandemic and responses to it.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said her government wants to ensure that the resolution stipulates the inquiry should be “impartial, independent and comprehensive.” “We’re very encouraged by the growing levels of support for this comprehensive World Health Assembly motion,” Payne told reporters. “We look forward to seeing hopefully a positive outcome later this week.”
Australia is seen as a leader in rallying global support for an inquiry, attracting Chinese criticism that it is parroting the United States and inviting a Chinese boycott of exports and services. Australian government critics have argued that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative administration should have gathered allies before antagonizing Australia’s most important trading partner. In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he hopes Australia will respect China’s position, keep in mind Australia’s own interests and “create a sound atmosphere for the two sides’ pragmatic cooperation by improving ties and deepening mutual trust.”
China is looking into trade issues between the sides “in accordance with related laws and World Trade Organization rules,” Zhao said. He said the international consensus is that “anti-epidemic cooperation remains a top priority, and it is not time to immediately activate the review and investigation into origins of the virus.”
Payne did not see the level of international support for the inquiry as a victory for Australia. “It’s a win for the international community and Australia as a strong and active part of that international community would certainly see it that way,” Payne said. The motion comes as Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham struggles to resolve a dispute with China over imports of Australian beef. Birmingham said Monday that he had failed for six days to arrange to speak with his Chinese counterpart about China’s ban on meat from Australia’s four largest abattoirs over labeling issues.