As was to be expected, the Wuhan epidemic brought back the issue of countering fake news and it was the World Health Organization doing so by coining the new term "infodemic".
The intent is clear enough: to convince the public that the greatest danger for global society in the social media era is the distortion of reality and therefore the need to manage the communication on health emergencies, in order to identify and contain the fake news and to prevent them from spreading, because, as they say, fake news create obstacles to access the information produced by the scientific and health professional community.
This neologism would be hilarious if it were not for the fact that all the actors involved, including the Chinese government and the World Health Organization itself, seem to have big problems of credibility, transparency and impartiality ... starting from the Director General of the WHO , as we'll see.
The election of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as WHO general manager dates back to 2017. The events involving him are part of a much broader framework, where the WHO certainly does not stand out for transparency and lack of connections with the stakeholders. One thing above all: of the 2,03 billion euros received as voluntary contributions, half comes from states funding and half from private entities. Among the most generous private sponsors, Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (207 million) and Gavi (143 million – a consortium of public and private subjects promoting vaccination campaigns with Mr and Mrs Gates as the main shareholders) are the ones standing out. Going down the list, moreover, we can find many other foundations and pharmaceutical companies too. With these premises, there is a very big question mark about the WHO’s independence.
But who is this Dr. Tedros, leader of the WHO? An Ethiopian doctor, who was also accused of covering three cholera outbreaks under his Ministry of Health in his home country.
The accusations did not come from some conspiracy site, but from relevant international press, such as the New York Times , who reported the complaint from global health expert Dr. David Nabarro. The facts, according to what was starting to leak from the media, concerned the cholera epidemics of 2006, 2009 and 2011, when the Ethiopian government, while reporting at least 60.000 cases per year of watery diarrhea (as in cholera), still refused to declare a health emergency. Underlying this decision was the fear of financial implications from tourism and exports’ drop.
In Ethiopian cases, the United Nations’ intervention was fundamental, with laboratory tests they showed that people were dying of cholera and, therefore, the infections were being covered up.
As a side note, we’d like to point out that chosing Ghebreyesus as WHO Director-General, in our opinion, should have taken into account the Ethiopian political context. In fact Dr. Tedros had been Ethiopian Foreign Minister from 2012 to 2016 , a time when, after a series of popular protests, the government was guilty of imprisoning many protesters by police harsh repression that caused at least 500 deaths and many local activists denounced far more, including rape and other unacceptable acts bordering on ethnic cleansing. Ethiopia, to conclude the Tedros chapter, is also reported in the 4 U2018 Anti-Corruption Resource Center recent report  that describes it as a country with high corruption and persistent human rights violations, causing widespread social unrest in 2015, when Dr. Tedros was Minister. We absolutely do not believe that Ghebreyesus is the cause of this rampant corruption and not even of the violent repressions on the Ethiopian people, but the major transparency problems of the WHO regarding previous pandemics were not resolved chosing this general manager.
We now come to the management of coronavirus epidemic that is raging in China and on the pages of tabloids all around the world. As of the date we write, February 10, 2020, the epidemic reports over 900 deaths and 40.573 confirmed infections. From the beginning we conspiracy theorists - as they like to call those who raise doubts about the data provided by institutional communication – have noted that some mainstream media were emphasizing a few noteworthy coincidences, such as the recent opening (2017), just in Wuhan, of the first Chinese laboratory, with a BSL-4 security level, working on the SARS virus (which is a coronavirus). But this issue takes the back seat (for now) compared to the most meaningful question for us here: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Xi Jinping, respectively the WHO Director-General and the President of the People's Republic of China, have really promptly managed the epidemic?
The World Health Organization has publicly broken a lance in favor of the Chinese Dragon, praising the emergency measures taken by Xi Jinping. This, for the Chinese government, has the same value as a medal which, however, was stained immediately afterwards, when the news of a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, Dr. Li Wenliang, who died recently due to Wuhan's coronavirus, came out. He first raised the alarm, as early as December 2019. The BBCrecently told his story from when he sent a message in a chat between colleagues warning them of the danger and suggesting to adopt the necessary protections to avoid contagion. Those private conversations’ screenshots began to go round and the doctor's name reached the Wuhan police, who accused him of defamation.
This approach, which must be said to be the only one making it to the western press, and Dr. Tedros' praise to the Chinese government’s way of managing the epidemic, has led the crtitics to investigate the relationship between Tedros and Beijing. According to the Asian Review, "Rumors in diplomatic circles report that China's relevance in the global economy and WHO itself may have played a role in the agency's decision to postpone the declaration of emergency ". The intent seemed to be of buying a few days, allowing millions of citizens to travel on the occasion of the Chinese New Year but, on the other hand, increasing the risk of spreading the virus outside Wuhan. Asian Review cites diplomatic sources from WHO headquarters, as resentful as the alarm would have been given "too late". Another source, this time from Beijing, explained to the Asian newspaper that "the ties between China and the UN are very close, since China is the second largest UN financier on a global scale."
That's not all: the Italian newspaper La Verità has already pointed out that Ghebreyesus' predecessor, Margaret Chan, by chance is of Chinese nationality, and had been nominated for the office by her government after facing the Sars epidemic in 2003. In addition, Beijing is one of the most generous financiers of Ethiopia, Dr. Tedros’ country of origin.
The Sars epidemic, the 2002-2003 acute respiratory syndrome reported 774 victims, and also very serious delays and a systematic cover-up by the Chinese government on the very existence of the sars virus. As early as mid-November 2002, a missionary reported strange deaths from "lung plague" to the agency for infectious disease control in Atlanta. The World Health Organization and the CDC started an investigation, but the Chinese government assured that the problem had been resolved and the cause of those infections was a bacterium, Chlamydia. It was not until February 2003 that the WHO received a report from the Minister of Health in which they finally spoke of acute severe respiratory syndrome.
In our opinion, all that we have told you is for better understanding of the Chinese coronavirus epidemic management. Ghebreyesus' applause for Xi Jinping's initial management led to an underestimation of the problem with serious implications for the global economy. Coronavirus maintains low mortality but it is impossible to trust Chinese data especially considering that the Health Commission of Wuhan has also stopped giving updates on the infection, because the bureaucracy is imposing certain steps: each test must be confirmed in Beijing (ie the central government), and that takes five days: a huge and inexplicable "hole" given the emergency of the health situation.
We are to conclude this editorial with a rhetorical and provocative question: in the light of what we have told you, do you still have confidence in the work and transparency of WHO and China regarding the Wuhan epidemic?