The COVID-19 crisis is exposing the limitations of global bodies like the UN and the WHO, trapped between the competing interests of US and Chinese imperialism. Like an umbrella full of holes, they’re useless precisely when they’re most needed.
On Friday 8 May, the UN failed to pass a resolution on the coronavirus pandemic. This means that four months into the greatest global crisis since World War Two, the organisation whose entire purpose is supposedly to foster global cooperation has nothing to say or do about it. It is unable to call for any cease-fires to tackle the pandemic or take any other action. It is truly impotent at the very moment it should be the most powerful and important organisation on earth.
It could not pass this resolution quite simply due to the irreconcilable differences between US and Chinese imperialism. The US wanted the resolution to blame a lack of ‘transparency’ for the spread of the virus, in other words, to blame the Chinese state and its cover up. China naturally objected, and insisted that the resolution make reference to the necessity of the UN’s own body, the World Health Organisation (WHO), in tackling the crisis. The US objected to this reference, and as a result, no resolution has been passed.
This rejection of the WHO is Trump’s new tactic, though the general strategy is hardly new. He has started blaming the WHO for the crisis in an attempt to distract attention from his government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, claiming the WHO covered for China’s errors. He has, as a result, cut US funding for the organisation, which is very significant since the US government is (or was) its largest donor.
What is the WHO?
Predictably, liberals are outraged. For them, the WHO is an impartial scientific body, and the very thing that the world so desperately needs. They look upon this bickering and narrow nationalism afflicting the major powers and yearn for a serious, professional, wise body of scientists to take over. They think the WHO is just that (or could be), and it is a tragedy that such stupid people are in power who neglect and abuse this wonderful, enlightened global organisation.
Is the WHO really so impartial and scientific? And if the system we live in, capitalism, is capable of building such wonderful institutions as the UN and WHO, why is it incapable of making use of them just when they are needed most?
The lifeblood of capitalism is profit making. The system as a whole depends on it. Capitalism can be guided by morality and human solidarity no more than a tiger can be made vegetarian. Therefore any institutions of capitalism professing to foster solidarity, cooperation and rationality, are dishonest. Any cooperation or aid that does take place can only do so insofar as it does not conflict with the quests for profit making and global influence that are inherent to capitalism.
The UN and its subordinate body, the WHO, are therefore chimeras: more apparent than real. Insofar as they find a meaningful role, it is because the interests of the respective capitalist powers more-or-less align, and therefore it is useful to cover themselves in the pleasing cloak of solidarity and enlightened cooperation. But when their interests do not align is precisely the moment that a powerful, independent arbiter of far-sighted human reason would be most needed. In such moments, the UN and WHO cannot but find themselves impotent and irrelevant.
The WHO was formed out of an earlier organisation established by the US government in 1902, the International Sanitary Bureau, which in turn was based on the outlook and work of US philanthropist billionaires. This outlook was never one of ending disease by tackling the most important basis of it, that is, chronic poverty and inequality. Instead it was based on the need to lance off inequality’s symptoms whilst preserving this inequality, so that capitalists may expand into new areas of the world, exploiting said inequality, without having too many sanitary barriers to doing so. Specific diseases were highlighted so that vaccines could be developed for them. In this way, troublesome diseases could be destroyed or mitigated without expensive social programmes and challenges to the privileges of the rich.
Whether the scientists who work for the WHO realise it or not, its real goal is not to create a genuinely healthy world but simply to prevent or mitigate pandemics, since these, as capitalist powers are now finding out, have a rather detrimental effect on profits and social stability.
This is not to say that many of the scientists working for the WHO do not want to eradicate illness and its causes. The question is, how can the WHO achieve this? As this crisis has rapidly revealed, it has no power of its own. The world desperately needs a globally coordinated and enforced strategy to stamp out the virus. Policies in all countries need to be harmonised, and efforts at developing treatments, including a vaccine, need to be pooled and made fully public.
But governments all over the world have their own ideas about how to get through the crisis. They try to export the worst of the problems to other countries, by hoarding supplies, vaccine research and not shutting their economies down. How can the WHO possibly contend with this multitude of competing imperialist states, and force them to follow its advice more or less uniformly?
Throughout its history, the WHO’s fortunes have waxed and waned exactly in line with the rise and fall of capitalism’s global stability. In the postwar period, when US imperialism was completely unmatched and world relations were much more stable, the WHO enjoyed its heyday. The stabilisation of relations between the world’s two great powers, the USA and USSR, enabled both to strongly back the WHO and its organisation of global efforts to vaccinate the world against smallpox. Thanks to this stability, this deadly disease was eradicated by 1979.
In the 1980s, US imperialism became increasingly belligerent, especially as the USSR was in obvious decline. Ronald Reagan felt the UN and the postwar order was increasingly holding the US back, and so he cut funding to the UN, which in turn cut the WHO budget. Thus, in the 80s and 90s, the WHO became increasingly irrelevant, unable to organise efforts to combat diseases as in the past.
Many liberals who complain about the WHO’s current impotence wax lyrical about its role in the SARS epidemic of 2003. This is because, in that crisis, the WHO had the boldness to admonish China for its lacklustre response to the pandemic, and to dictate to the world the necessary measures to contain the disease, which in the end spread far less widely than the current coronavirus.
But the world was a very different place in 2003. China was far less powerful than it is today, and the US a lot more powerful. The Iraq War had only just begun (though that revealed the UN was impotent to prevent war in a world of growing imperialist discord) and the financial crisis was still years away. Thus, the WHO, with US backing, felt able to throw its weight around. Countries such as China, keen to get into the good books, complied.
The 2008 financial crisis marked a fundamental turning point in history. Since then, globalisation has gone into reverse, and all imperialist organisations have gone into crisis – NATO, the EU, the UN, the World Trade Organisation, the IMF and yes, the WHO: all of these have fractured and found no role for themselves as US power wanes and different countries increasingly resort to protectionism and populist nationalism.
In 2009, the so-called Swine Flu epidemic took place, and once again the WHO was seen as fairly aggressive in efforts at containment, which of course did some damage to the economy. However, the flu turned out not to be especially deadly, but it did coincide exactly with the depths of the worst global recession since WWII. In these straitened circumstances, the WHO’s aggressive measures to halt the virus were harshly criticised by bourgeois governments for being excessive and unnecessarily contributing to this economic crisis.
The 11 years since this turning point have witnessed a relative rise in China’s power and influence, and a relative decline in that of the US. This situation has profoundly impacted on the psychology of the US ruling class. One could describe this psychology as one of acute paranoia in relation to China, except that this paranoia does have at least some basis in fact.
As we know, Donald Trump is the most extreme expression of this phenomenon, but his China hatred is essentially shared by both wings of the American ruling class. His habit in almost any situation is to blame China, and this pandemic – which originated in China, while also providing opportunities for China to increase its influence – is tailor made for this habit. Trump and Pompeo for a long time insisted on referring to the virus as the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘Wuhan virus’. They even prevented an earlier UN resolution from being passed after insisting on this name being used in the resolution. At a press conference just this week, Trump avoided answering the question of why the US response to the pandemic has been so inept, by suggesting the reporter (who was Asian American) “ask China. Don’t ask me”. He then walked out of the press conference.
Trump’s accusation that the WHO is covering for China in this pandemic might be nothing more than an attempt to distract attention from his own failings, but it is not without truth. The last few years have seen a marked change in Chinese foreign policy. Under Xi Jinping, China has moved from its previous policy of “hide your strength, bide your time”, to one of showing its strength and wielding influence.
America’s increasing hostility to the very imperialist institutions it built, such as NATO and the UN, clearly opens a door for China. With the criticism of the WHO over the Swine Flu pandemic, China spotted one such opportunity, and has been carefully increasing its influence within the WHO. In 2017, its choice for Director General of the WHO, the Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom, won with the backing of many African states more-or-less in China’s sphere of influence, against the wishes of the US and the UK, who had always got their way in the WHO.
This does go some way to explaining why the WHO was slow to declare a pandemic, which it didn’t do until 12 March, by which time the disease had already caused the lockdown of all of Italy, as well as why the WHO has been so much more hesitant to criticise China than in 2003. Tedros Adhanom is thought to have avoided criticising China in order to secure the invitation of WHO officials and scientists into the country to examine the spread of the disease, something China initially refused.
This speaks volumes about the way in which China’s size and influence now inevitably affects the agenda of the WHO. This growing influence is bound to cause a reaction from American imperialism and its allies. Indeed, Japan’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, Taro Aso, has recently stated that he and others sometimes now refer to the WHO as the ‘Chinese Health Organisation’.
This reaction is of course exaggerated for effect. The US remains the WHO’s biggest financial backer, followed by the UK, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Bank – all very much part and parcel of US imperialism. It is in the nature of bourgeois politics to raise a hue and cry out of all proportion with reality whenever their interests are threatened.
The intention of such exaggerations is to sound the alarm, but with a helmsman like Trump, this method is ramped up to eleven, loses all touch with reality, and becomes counterproductive. Trump’s behaviour in cutting US funding to the WHO, and attempting to privately produce a US-only vaccine, is highly short-sighted and self-harming. He is accelerating the decline of US influence over the fracturing institutions of imperialism. For the US ruling class, it is imperative to get rid of Trump, and yet he is a faithful reflection of their own deep insecurities about the future of their own system.
The WHO’s impotence and irrelevance were summed up when, on 5 February, it asked for $675m to fund its coronavirus response. A month later, it had received only $1.2m. This, and its use as a political football by the US and China, are stark expressions of the collapse of globalisation. Capitalism is leaderless. How then will it respond to the titanic tasks it faces in this new global depression, the worst ever?
More than ever, the crisis of humanity is resolved into the crisis of proletarian leadership. The capitalist class are busily proving they are not fit to rule society. The coronavirus pandemic has graphically shown the crying need for socialist planning and solidarity on a global scale. We must build an international revolutionary leadership to meet these tasks. There is no time to waste. Join us!