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Adam Minter

WHO Needs to Quit Being Polite With China

The coronavirus poses a global health risk that’s more important than appeasing a major donor to the agency.

Safety first.

Safety first.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

In late January, the World Health Organization began offering to send an international team of experts to China to observe and help with the outbreak of a novel coronavirus. On Monday, that team of experts was finally allowed to start its investigations. The Chinese government, however, will not let them to visit epidemic-stricken Hubei province or the city of Wuhan, the likely source of the virus now called Covid-19 and the site of the largest quarantine in history. According to one prominent Communist Party-controlled news outlet, Hubei is simply too busy and “cannot spare the time and people to receive the experts.”

For weeks, the World Health Organization and its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have been under fire for a tepid and slow-moving response to the deadly new virus — an approach that appears overly deferential to China’s political demands. Some of the criticism is unfair. The WHO cannot organize a response to a global health emergency if the country at its center won’t cooperate. But recent history shows that too much political deference in a health emergency is a global risk in its own right. The WHO is uniquely positioned to demand more from China. It needs to do so now.