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April 30, 2020

WHO and China - a dangerous liaison in this pandemic

Le Monde takes a close look at the role of the WHO in this pandemic in a well-researched series. It is not a glorious picture. The WHO's communication and actions suggest that it has been under China's influence since the beginning of the pandemic. The WHO did not question the information provided by China. Worse, it even endorsed its narrative and the timing of difficult decisions.

The warning about suspicious clusters in Wuhan came from Taiwan and China at the end of December, but the WHO was slow to react. In mid-January they still went with the official line from Beijing that the virus was not transmissible between humans in the community, only within families. When airlines cancelled their flights to China at the end of January, the WHO criticised them. The organisation did not pursue its own investigations, even after the disappearance of two whistleblowers who revealed the real state of Wuhan's hospitals. Only late in February they finally sent a mission into China, matched with a Chinese team of equal size. Initially they were not even planning to enter the hotspots in Hubei, as the hospital staff had other things to do than receiving an international mission according to the official explanation.

Since being appointed to lead the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, a malaria specialist and former Ethiopian health and foreign minister, has had close relations with China according to the article. During this pandemic he hailed the country for its efficiency and rapid response. Tedros even served China's foreign policy agenda by accusing Taiwan of racism against himself without proof, which in the end turned out to be a campaign launched by Chinese internet trolls pretending to be Taiwanese citizens.

Precious weeks were lost in the first months of the year and only on March 11 did the WHO finally announce a state of pandemic. The organisation and its president have a lot to answer for in terms of reliability and transparency. But suspending support to the WHO as Donald Trump did is not the answer. The WHO is the only legitimate multilateral framework to coordinate health policies internationally. It has had a series of failings since its inception after WWII, so it is time to get to the bottom of the problem. In May the world health assembly will meet via videoconference, which hopefully will be a first step.

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April 30, 2020

What does European integration look like

There are a lot of misconceptions and clichés about European integration and disintegration, like the infamous glass half-full, half-empty defence, or various images involving bicycles and trains. The UK has chosen a radical version of disentangling itself from the EU, but this is not only form disintegration can take. Nor is it the most urgent one right now. Erik Jones makes a very powerful argument that we need to watch out for a subtler version of integration. As he puts it, picking up the glass half-full/empty metaphor:

"Everyone can see that it is half. The important question is what is lurking on the empty side. That is where the forces for disintegration are most likely to reside. And it does not take much effort to see that they are significant."

He noted a crisis doom-loop: that with each crisis imbalances are becoming larger, driven by diverging funding costs for governments, and borrowing costs for companies. Another crisis addressed with the same instruments as the last one would only fuel this doom loop.

What is worse now compared to 2007-2009 is a diverging sense of urgency. The Italian situation is desperate right now, yet the EU is kicking the can down the road in the usual manner. What looks like an act of integration from the north, controversially so, is viewed is a process of disintegration in the south. The EU may even end up pushing forward formal integration through another round of treaty reforms, yet the sense of disintegration might increase. Integration and disintegration can happen at the same time. Jones argues that the point of further integration should not be institution-building, but to support those left behind by the resolution of three consecutive crises in 13 years. 

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