May 21, 2021 - 2:44pm

Yesterday the WHO issued an update on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s the sort of rewriting of history one would expect from an organisation which has over the past year overseen the biggest collapse in living standards for the global poor since the end of colonialism.

The WHO issued the briefing as part of the Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well-Being for All (GAP). WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that “GAP partners have shown their unwavering commitment to countries during the pandemic”. Yet sadly this ‘unwavering commitment’ did not involve implementing the pandemic policies which were in place before Covid-19. These policies ensured that the livelihoods of those in poor countries were protected, whereas the policy championed by the WHO over the past year has destroyed them.

As recently as December 2019, the WHO published a report on how to approach pandemics: contact tracing, quarantine of exposed but asymptomatic individuals, and border closures were “not recommended in any circumstances”. The report also noted that there were ethical issues with virus control measures where there were populations of migrant workers (as is frequently the case in poor countries). The word ‘lockdown’ was not mentioned anywhere in this report.

WHO insiders say that these reports build on two or three years of research. Yet all this was discarded within two months. Following the reporting of the novel coronavirus, the WHO despatched a mission to visit affected areas of China from February 16-24, and then issued a report which overturned the recommendations it had just published. Instead, all countries with cases were to pursue the policies that the December report had said should never be applied: contact tracing and the quarantining of exposed people, while they were also to strategise “even more stringent measures” (lockdowns).

There were many problems with the WHO’s new approach. Scientifically, there was no control mechanism to see if China’s new policy was really effective. And there was no consideration of the socioeconomic variables and ethical considerations to the global poor that the December report had identified. Predictably, in the world’s poor countries, where the vast majority of work is informal, the impact of these policies has been a humanitarian catastrophe: a collapse in African economies, huge increases in poverty-induced migration (as seen this week in Morocco), and a humanitarian situation in India which has been compared to partition.

Who is the WHO trying to fool? All of us, it would appear. This claim that it now seeks an “equitable” rebuilding is just part of the massive rewriting of history that it is undertaking at the moment.  Just last week we were told that the world should have moved into stringent suppression measures in February — but how world leaders were supposed to do this when it was an entirely new policy is not explained. The world cannot let the WHO escape from its role in the humanitarian catastrophe of the last year.

Toby Green’s book The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality is published by Hurst.

Toby Green is a Professor of History at King’s College, London. The updated edition of his book, The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Thomas Fazi, is published by Hurst.