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COVID-19: Secretary Mike Pompeo slams WHO for failing on its fundamental mission

By Pearl Matibe

U.S. Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo has strongly criticized the World Health Organization (WHO), saying it has not delivered on its original mission and response to the global coronavirus outbreak and that its performance amounted to ongoing and continued failure.

“The World Health Organization has demonstrated time and time again that it has suffered from deficiencies that don’t permit it to accomplish its fundamental mission,” said Michael R. Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State in the U.S. Department of State — former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “We’ve been very factual in our statements about what the WHO has failed — and when I say has failed that’s present tense, continues to fail [to do] with respect to this pandemic,” Secretary Mike Pompeo said.

In an early morning briefing on Thursday which Pearl Matibe attended at the invitation of and hosted by the U.S. Department of State, Secretary Pompeo spoke on several foreign policy issues of prime and pressing concern to the United States Government (USG), among them the WHO’s performance on the coronavirus pandemic.

Excerpt [verbatim] on U.S. formal withdrawal from the WHO

SECRETARY POMPEO: Each time we participate in a multilateral institution, President Trump has said let’s think about a couple of things. Does the institution perform its fundamental function for which it was originally intended? And if it does, great, and if that original intention still makes sense in light of the world events, then we should continue to support it and underwrite it.

The World Health Organization has demonstrated time and time again that it has suffered from deficiencies that don’t permit it to accomplish its fundamental mission set, which is to alert the world and prevent the world from suffering global pandemics. Thus – we’ve been very factual in our statements about what the WHO has failed — and when I say has failed that’s present tense, continues to fail [to do] with respect to this pandemic.

The World Health Organization still can’t get the Chinese Communist Party to help us identify patient zero or determine precisely how it’s the case that the Chinese Communist Party chose to close down travel inside of their country but allow the virus to continue to spread around the world. We don’t know the answers to those things. The WHO has a responsibility to get to the bottom of it, and the WHO then has a responsibility too to hold accountable nations that don’t comply with the WHO’s own internal regulations, and the Chinese clearly did not do that in this case. The WHO has not yet manifested its capacity to do that, to hold China accountable for its failures to report and its obligations under the World Health Organization, rules that we helped put in place the last time that the WHO failed and there were significant reforms at the WHO.

We have been engaged in reform at the WHO for an awfully long time, and whether it was Ebola that the United States ultimately had to grab a hold of; create PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief], and go around, work outside of the WHO channels to ultimately deliver glorious outcomes for Africa; or whether it was the failure of the WHO during the previous times with SARS, again from China. One — the institution is incapable of delivering on its core mission set, and [you] have tried mightily to reform it and fix it from within.

The United States has a responsibility. We spend almost half a billion dollars a year on global pandemics. We need to find an institution and the capacity in a way to deliver [those global health] — on those global health and global security needs, and the WHO has not demonstrated its ability to do it. We tried to do the simple thing, to get Taiwan to be able to participate as an observer, and the Chinese Communist Party influence prevented that from happening. I think that’s very telling.

COVID-19 an WHO in Zimbabwe

Caption: WHO in Zimbabwe at a glance as at 7 October 2020, 8:30 am. (Source: WHO Africa Region)

In Zimbabwe in early March, government officials told Voice of America it was 100-percent prepared for COVID-19. Three months later in June, a Nature Medicine article — COVID-19 in Africa: the spread and response. Nat Med (2020) co-authored by John N. Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) — says, “Given the current trends in incidence and underlying healthcare systems vulnerabilities, Africa could become the next epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Is Zimbabwe, indeed, ready?

Several local, independent reporters in the country tried to find out but confirm that WHO Representative, Dr Alex Ntale Gasasira and his team have not been responsive to them seeking answers. One reporter [name withheld because he feared ruffling relationships] said, “That is usually how they operate.”

While many Zimbabweans returning from other countries and, held in quarantine on entry, feel dissatisfied and wish the WHO could do more. One returnee had a few experiences to share:

Excerpt of an Interview with a Zimbabwean (with an underlying condition) in Quarantine

Ethical disclosure: For reporting ease and given the stigma on quarantined returnees in Zimbabwe, the returnee is described as male, name, age, and all identifying information has been withheld to protect the source.

PEARL MATIBE: For the record, what is your name?

RETURNEE: [name provided]

PEARL MATIBE: Let’s start with your stay. How is it?

RETURNEE: When I arrived, I slept without a blanket because I was not supplied one. I feel unsafe because I’m asking myself: how then do I make keep myself safe? Are they so sure that I keep safe from COVID-19 if I’m roomed-in with other returnees who are still waiting for coronavirus results. How then are you so sure? You haven’t tested me in any way. How do you ensure that I will not infect these people?

[He explained in detail his port of entry and what led to him being in quarantine.]

PEARL MATIBE: When you arrived at the quarantine center, where your rights explained to you?

RETURNEE: No. Not my rights, but the routine. I don’t think my rights were ever explained to me because I don’t know what they are.

PEARL MATIBE: When the routine was being explained to you, were you told what services would be made available to you and how?

RETURNEE: No. The only thing I got to know was after the first day they told me, you can have 1-small blanket.

PEARL MATIBE: Was it explained to you what will happen to you if you do get sick with COVID-19?

RETURNEE: No. Actually, there was a comment, in passing, that I’ll probably be taken into isolation.

PEARL MATIBE: Are you, freely, able to communicate with your family members outside of the quarantine?

RETURNEE: Yes, I can.

PEARL MATIBE: Do you have access to wi-fi, news, and entertainment?

RETURNEE: There’s no entertainment. We wake up in the morning and bask in the sun. I read stories in my phone.

PEARL MATIBE: Is food provided?

RETURNEE: Each of us gets 4-slices of bread and tea in the morning, Sadza and beans in the afternoon, and Sadza and game meat in the evening. Food quality varies with each day.

PEARL MATIBE: Have you been provided with any psycho-social support to deal with the mental trauma of being in quarantine? Is water available and how do you access it? How do you do your laundry? Do you have electricity?

RETURNEE: No mental support. I don’t think there is a timetable for water. I just know that I can wake up once or twice a week and water will come out of the tap. On other days we use a 10-liter bucket. On the day water is available. From that, we fill up a bigger bin. Then, that’s the water we share on the other days when water is not available. We share about 4 people to a bucket. We share this to wash, do laundry, and everything else. And yes, we have electricity.

PEARL MATIBE: Do you have a face mask?

RETURNEE: Yes, I received a cloth mask. It’s the only mask that I have been reusing while I am here.

PEARL MATIBE: In the room that you are sleeping in, is there adequate ventilation?

RETURNEE: My window opens onto sewage, so if I open the window the stench comes in. So, I don’t open the window.

PEARL MATIBE: Are you religious? Are you able to freely practice your faith?

RETURNEE: No. No gathering. Just each man to himself.

When the returnee started to feel ill due to his underlying condition, he asked if a doctor could check him. He was refused a medical doctor. He said he was not the only one who was ill and had not had access to a medical doctor. One night while he lay sleeping, another returnee woke him up to ask if he had any kind of topical medication that he could give him to apply on his Shingles, even methylated spirits, which the fellow returnee believed might help relieve the pain from the Shingles.

He had none and could offer no further comfort to his fellow returnee.

Over the next weeks and months, the Zimbabwean people will continue to wonder how they will survive the pandemic in their already severely weakened healthcare delivery system. And, for those in quarantine, how they can stay safe, live with dignity, and feel that WHO is positively impacting their lives in a positive way.

Washington, DC-based foreign correspondent, and media commentator with expertise on U.S. foreign policy and global affairs. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe

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Daniel Chigundu

Daniel Chigundu is the news editor for OpenParlyZW an online platform that covers Parliament of Zimbabwe activities using social media (Twitter and Facebook). He is currently the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Parliamentary Journalists Forum and a board member of Digital Communication Network.

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