NYT: WHO recommendation not to close borders at start of pandemic based on ‘politics, economics,’ not science

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The World Health Organization’s recommendation that countries not close their borders as the COVID-19 virus was just beginning to go global was not based on “science” but rather on “politics” and “economics,” according to a report Thursday.

“When the coronavirus emerged in China in January, the World Health Organization didn’t flinch in its advice: Do not restrict travel,” The New York Times reported. “But what is now clear is that the policy was about politics and economics more than public health.”

The paper added:

Public health records, scores of scientific studies and interviews with more than two dozen experts show the policy of unobstructed travel was never based on hard science. It was a political decision, recast as health advice, which emerged after a plague outbreak in India in the 1990s. By the time Covid-19 surfaced, it had become an article of faith.

“It’s part of the religion of global health: Travel and trade restrictions are bad. I’m one of the congregants,” Lawrence O. Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University who assisting in writing rules known as the International Health Regulations, told the Times.

The report comes as President Donald Trump defended his early decision — in late January — to restrict travel to the U.S. from China, where the virus is known to have originated.

During his first debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Trump insisted, as he often has in the past, that his decision was both proper and visionary while ripping Biden for labeling the decision “xenophobic” — a charge the former vice president incorrectly denied.

In a January op-ed for USA Today, Biden, like the WHO, recommended against any travel ban, calling them “reactionary” policy “that would have only made things worse.”

Then, at a campaign rally in Iowa, Biden said of the travel ban, “We have, right now, a crisis with the coronavirus… This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia – hysterical xenophobia – and fear-mongering to lead the way instead of science.”

As for the WHO’s decision being political rather than science-based, some media outlets questioned the global health agency’s motives right off the bat.

“As we reported back on January 31, the WHO repeatedly urged countries not to impose border controls, in part to avoid the ‘stigmatization’ of Chinese people,” Summit News noted, in reference to the Times’ revelations.

“In other words, not being seen to be racist and preventing people’s feelings from being hurt was more important than stopping the spread of the pandemic,” the outlet added.

In early February, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pushed back against travel restrictions.

“…[W]e reiterate our call to all countries not to impose restrictions inconsistent with the International Health Regulations,” he said during a public briefing. “Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit.

“Where such measures have been implemented, we urge that they are short in duration, proportionate to the public health risks, and are reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves,” he added.

In May, President Trump blasted the organization and said the U.S. would be terminating its relationship with WHO.

“We have detailed the reforms that it must make and engage with them directly, but they have refused to act,” he said at a White House coronavirus briefing.

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Jon Dougherty

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