People & Power

Chronicles of a Pandemic

Did errors and delays at the World Health Organization make the global spread of the coronavirus inevitable?

When, on March 11, 2020, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, formally announced that the pathogen known as COVID-19 had developed into a pandemic, it came as little surprise to anyone. By then, from its origins in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus had been spreading internationally for at least two months – already infecting 118,000 people in 114 countries and alarming many more.

As we now know, tens of millions more would eventually be infected and to date, almost a million people have died. More grim milestones are sure to be passed in the months ahead. As things stand, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.

Yet back in those early uncertain weeks, as the world was waking to an unprecedented threat, the WHO came under attack for its response to the early stages of the outbreak, from scientists and health administrators, from governments and even heads of state such as United States President Donald Trump.

The WHO is mandated by the United Nations to lead the global response to contagion. But its critics have accused the organisation of failing in that mission and of reacting too slowly to the appearance of the coronavirus. Some have claimed it too readily believed what it was first told by the Chinese government, about the nature and severity of this new disease. Others charged that it had been sluggish in confirming the risk of human-to-human transmission, or in recommending the use of face masks as a means to limit infection.

As these criticisms grew in the late spring and early summer of 2020, a team of Swiss-Italian filmmakers spoke to some of the WHO’s detractors and then visited the agency’s headquarters in Geneva to investigate whether it could have done more, sooner, to alert the world.