This mission-driven WHO would not have brazenly tweeted, as late as January 14, that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” That claim was false, and known by the authorities in Wuhan to be false.. Taiwan had already told the WHO of the truth too. On top of that, the day before that tweet was sent, there had been a case in Thailand: a woman from Wuhan who had traveled to Thailand, but who had never been to the seafood market associated with the outbreak—which strongly suggested that the virus was already spreading within Wuhan.
We can get a glimpse at that alternate timeline by looking at the two places where COVID-19 was successfully contained: Taiwan and Hong Kong. With dense populations and close links to and travel from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are unlikely candidates for success. Yet Taiwan reported zero new confirmed cases on Tuesday, fewer than 400 confirmed cases since the beginning of the outbreak, and only six deaths. Taiwan’s schools have been open since the end of February and there is no drastic lockdown in the island of almost 30 million people.
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Hong Kong has had a slightly tougher time. It is ruled by an unpopular leader handpicked by Beijing, so not all the recommendations of its health experts could be implemented. But still, the city has had just more than 1,000 cases and only four deaths, despite never completely closing its border with mainland China and despite a lot of the city functioning as usual. Taiwan and Hong Kong succeeded because they ignored, contradicted, and defied the official position and the advice of the WHO on many significant issues. This is not a coincidence, but a damning indictment of the WHO’s leadership.
Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s health authorities assessed the pandemic accurately, and not just with respect to the science. They understood the political complexities, including the roles of the WHO and China in shaping official statements about the virus. They did not take the WHO’s word when it was still parroting in late January China’s cover-up that there was no human-to-human transmission. They did not listen to the WHO on not wearing masks, which the WHO continues to insist are unnecessary to this late day, despite accumulating evidence that masks are essential to dampening this epidemic’s spread. Taiwan ignored the WHO’s position that travel bans were ineffective; instead, it closed its borders early and, like Hong Kong, screened travelers aggressively.
Hong Kong and Taiwan remembered that China has a history of covering up epidemics. In 2003, the world didn’t learn about SARS until after it had escaped China and become impossible to deny. (Back then, the WHO openly criticized China for its lack of transparency and cover-up, and we contained the epidemic just in the nick of time.) This time, the WHO was told the truth early on: Taiwanese health authorities sent their own medical teams to Wuhan in December. Those scientists confirmed human-to-human transmission—the most crucial piece of information for determining the difference between a local tragedy (if viruses are only jumping from infected bats or pangolins to humans in wildlife markets where people interact directly with them) and a brewing global pandemic. Taiwan isn’t allowed to be a member of the WHO, because of China’s objections, but it still informed the organization. Hong Kong health authorities, too, announced as early as January 4 that they suspected human-to-human transmission was already occurring, as they also looked at the evidence and their own contacts in Wuhan.