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In tears, WHO chief blasts ‘lack of leadership and solidarity’ during pandemic

Australia and the European Union spearheaded the push for an independent inquiry into the origins and response to the outbreak. The probe is expected to examine China’s handling of the disease and whether the WHO and other organisations did enough to stop its rapid spread earlier this year.

The highly respected Clark, who led New Zealand between 1999 and 2008 and has evolved into a shrewd operator in international affairs over recent years, will co-chair the investigation with former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark will co-chair the international inquiry.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark will co-chair the international inquiry.Credit: Reuters

Announcing the appointments, Tedros – whose own leadership has been under pressure during the pandemic – hit out at countries for failing to prepare for pandemics and said COVID-19 “thrives on division”.

“For years, many of us warned that a catastrophic respiratory pandemic was inevitable,” he said.

“It was not a question of if, but when. But still, despite all the warnings, the world was not ready. Our systems were not ready. Our communities were not ready. Our supply chains collapsed.

“It is time for a very honest reflection. All of us must look in the mirror – the World Health Organisation, every member state, all involved in the response. Everyone.”

Clark and Sirleaf will draw up the terms of reference in negotiation with WHO members and present an interim report in November before a final verdict in May 2021.

“Our world has changed by what is happening,” Clark said. “It’s challenged in ways none of us could have forecast.”

Tedros called on countries to “open up” and show the review team “everything as an open book”, and pledged the WHO would do the same.

He suggested the review must look at national surveillance and response systems, how information was shared, whether health organisations had lost public trust and “whether our global health architecture is fit for purpose” – a possible concession that the WHO may need to be restructured.

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“The magnitude of this pandemic, which has touched virtually everyone in the world, clearly deserves a commensurate evaluation; an honest evaluation,” he said.

“This is not a standard report that ticks a box and is then put on a shelf to gather dust. This is something we take seriously.”

The Australian government’s confidence in the WHO has fallen during the pandemic, while US President Donald Trump this week formally started the process of withdrawing America’s membership after accusing the body of bias towards China.

Clark has previously claimed the WHO had been “left out to dry” by a lack of support from the United Nations Security Council and the G20.

“Its toxic geopolitics have stopped it doing anything useful at all,” Clark said of the powerful Security Council in May.

She also stressed she was a “defender” of the WHO because “in the circumstances, it’s done the best job it could”.

“But it needs member states to follow its advice, it needs member states like China to report very rapidly when they detect there is a new virus on the move which could cause a pandemic, and of course neither of these two things happened.”

A team of WHO experts is preparing to travel to China to work with local officials on identifying the zoonotic source of the outbreak.

The pandemic has killed at least 540,000 people worldwide, with more than 12 million infected.

Tedros, who this week warned the outbreak was getting worse instead of better, told leaders on Thursday that the virus was not the greatest threat.

“Rather, it is the lack of leadership and solidarity at the global and national levels. This is a tragedy that is forcing us to miss many of our friends and lose many lives. And we cannot defeat this pandemic as a divided world,” he said.

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