Nobel Peace Prize for WHO Would Be a Blow to Trump and a Big Win for China
The World Health Organization is the frontrunner to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize in a development that experts say could represent a blow to President Donald Trump‘s efforts to disparage the agency as a puppet for China, a country on which he’s sought to pin the blame for the coronavirus’ global spread.
In a widely-shared op-ed published Wednesday by The Washington Post, U.N. Dispatch blog editor and Global Dispatches podcast host Marc Leon Goldberg laid out a case in favor of the WHO winning the coveted prize due to its international efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
In it, he notes that, “Conferring the Nobel Peace Prize on the WHO would be interpreted in the United States as a political act — and it will be.”
Speaking to Newsweek, Goldberg said such a move would be necessary to counter another politically motivated campaign championed by Trump, who has withdrawn funding for the global health agency over what he alleged to be its complicity in a conspiracy orchestrated by China to cover up the severity of the disease as it spread through the country in its early stages.
A WHO victory, Goldberg explained, would “point to the fact that the Trump administration’s decision to withhold funding from the World Health Organization and actively seek to undermine it is, itself just a blatantly political act, seeking to shift blame from his own tragically incompetent handling of this crisis.”
The WHO’s relationship with China has been subject to some international scrutiny, but Trump has unilaterally led a warpath against the agency and its chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, over claims of undue ties to Beijing.
Even as the president was sick with COVID-19, he continued to refer to the disease as the “Chinese virus.”
Citing an earlier CIA document, Newsweek reported in May that Chinese President Xi Jinping had pressured the WHO with potential non-cooperation should the agency raise the alarm about the novel coronavirus disease as it began to infect populations far beyond the central city of Wuhan in January.
Notably, however, the document characterized the WHO as “Mindful But Not Beholden to China.”
Goldberg described the dynamics between the WHO and Beijing as simply a matter of how such international institutions were organized and operated, dependent on the governments of the world to cooperate with them.
“It’s just a function of how the WHO is set up,” Goldberg said. “The WHO relies on its member states to provide it information about pandemics and diseases occurring on their territory.”
He said the WHO’s potential to win the Nobel Peace Prize—an accolade rooted in politics—would have far more to do with the organization’s interactions with the U.S. than China.
“China does not wield undue influence at the World Health Organization,” Goldberg said. “If there was any country that did wield undue influence, it was the United States, which is by far the largest funder of the WHO.”
Xiaoyu Pu, associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Nevada, echoed Goldberg’s portrayal of the Trump administration’s strategy as geared toward a home audience.
“Driven by domestic political agenda, Republicans and the Trump administration scapegoat the WHO for Trump’s own mishandling of the pandemic,” Pu told Newsweek.
“The Nobel Peace Prize indicates that the international community would not recognize Trump’s reframing of the issue,” he said, “and it would reaffirm the message the global cooperation is far more important than U.S. domestic politics.”
He said the Trump administration’s approach has only undermined joint efforts to end the pandemic.
“It is tragic to see the Trump administration and the Chinese government mutually blame each other when global cooperation is badly needed,” Pu told Newsweek. “Awarding the WHO the Nobel Peace Prize would affirm the broad international perspective: Dealing with global challenges like Covid-19 needs real multilateral collaboration.”
The loneliness of the U.S. stance was made apparent during the 73rd World Health Assembly in May. Washington’s representatives seized the opportunity to discredit the WHO, while other countries praised the organization in an effort to establish a comprehensive, joint response to fight the pandemic.
When the United Nations General Assembly voted to empower a unified anti-pandemic response last month, the U.S. was joined only by Israel in opposing it due to a clause criticizing the use of unilateral sanctions.
In his annual address to the U.N., Xi praised “the leading role of the World Health Organization” and called for “a joint international response to beat this pandemic.” He warned: “Any attempt of politicizing the issue or stigmatization must be rejected.”
Trump also vowed victory over COVID-19, but dedicated most of his speech to railing against Beijing, urging the international community to “hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China.”
The WHO declined Newsweek‘s request to address its potential Nobel Peace Prize candidacy. The agency has also declined to comment on discussions with individual member states such as China, but spokesperson Andrei Muchnik told Newsweek late last month that the organization “is committed to the principles of neutrality and impartiality in working with our Member States.”
Muchnik also defended the WHO’s response time to the pandemic.
“WHO experts suspected possible human to human transmission of COVID-19 from the first reports they received on 31 December,” Muchnik said at the time. “WHO followed with swift action and alerted the world for preparedness early January.”
Pu saw room for improvement in the WHO’s early warning system, but ultimately said that it wasn’t just China but the “the broader international community” that championed such multilateral mechanisms.
“In dealing with global pandemic like COVID-19, the WHO has done excellent work in coordinating global response, and we need to see the WHO from a global perspective rather than only from the U.S.-China perspective,” he told Newsweek. “In particular, many poor developing countries have benefited from WHO’s work.”
Others working with the WHO for years in such developing countries also say the organization should be awarded based on merit alone. One such voice came from Tsion Firew, a doctor of emergency medicine who serves as assistant professor at Columbia University and adviser to the Health Ministry of Ethiopia—Tedros’ home country.
“As a person that witnessed the efforts and impact of the WHO, as a person that grew up in Ethiopia and later on as an adult, who pursued a career in medicine and public health, everyone should realize the WHO is an organization working for #healthcare for ALL,” Firew told Newsweek. “It should be recognized for its colossal impact over decades and for the tireless efforts all the staff have shown during COVID.”
She argued it wasn’t about the geopolitical struggle between Washington and Beijing, but the panhuman problem of a disease that reshaped life as peoples across the globe once knew it.
“The win for the WHO shouldn’t be a discredit to the USA nor a win to China,” Firew added. “It’s not their battleground. Rather an organization that works for all the nations of the world.”
Both the U.S. and China’s handling of COVID-19 have been subject to criticism, though a Pew Research Center survey published Tuesday based on the views of 14 countries toward Washington and Beijing’s responses to the pandemic generally rated the U.S. lower.
Out of the grouping of mostly Western European and East Asian nations, all of which have advanced economies, only the U.S. itself ranked itself higher than China.
The U.S. record was further panned in a scathing editorial published Thursday by The New England Journal of Medicine, the oldest continuously published peer-reviewed medical journal in the country, and widely viewed as one of its most authoritative.
“Covid-19 has created a crisis throughout the world,” the editorial opened. “This crisis has produced a test of leadership. With no good options to combat a novel pathogen, countries were forced to make hard choices about how to respond. Here in the United States, our leaders have failed that test. They have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.”
Criticizing the U.S.for having “failed at every step” in mobilizing a national response to the pandemic, the journal conversely described the Chinese early lockdown model as “severe but effective.”
Tedros’ chief advisor, endocrinologist Senait Fisseha, described took a similar stance toward the Chinese strategy.
“Countries who chose to take aggressive measures, including China, have been able to to keep their citizens safer and mitigate the economic impact of Covid19,” Fisseha, who also hails from Tedros’ home country of Ethiopia and founded the Center for International Reproductive Health Training at the University of Michigan, told Newsweek.
She emphasized that an award for the WHO had more to do with multilateralism than with any one nation.
“By awarding the WHO, the Nobel Committee will send a strong message to those that are trying to undermine the multilateral system and affirms the need for the world to come together in unity and solidarity to defeat this pandemic,” she argued.
She specifically called out the U.S. for its “baseless allegation” against the WHO, something she joined other experts Newsweek spoke to in describing as an attempt “to shift the blame of the administration’s gross incompetence and failure in managing the pandemic.”
Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine instructor at Boston’s Brigham And Women’s Hospital, left room for cultural, societal and institutional differences to explain why the U.S. and Chinese experience with COVID-19 differed so vastly, but came to a similar conclusion as to who had come out ahead and who should be recognized come Friday’s announcement.
“I’m not someone who thinks that the Chinese government is completely reliable on everything, and it’s possible that there are times when they are completely unreliable,” Faust told Newsweek. “But I don’t think that it’s inaccurate to say that when you look at the scoreboard, they did better.”
Faust, who has also worked with Tedros personally, spoke highly of the WHO chief, calling him extremely receptive and willing to adapt, even when the two disagreed, a quality Faust said was “extremely important in a crisis and a marked contrast to how we were conducting business.”
He said Tedros deserved the award.
“My understanding of who he is is that he’s an exceptional human being and deserves to win the Nobel Prize,” Faust said. “If everything I know about him turns out to be true, then I can’t think of a better person who embodies the spirit of the Nobel Prize.”
This article has been updated to include remarks by Senait Fisseha, chief advisor to the WHO direct-general and founder of the Center for International Reproductive Health Training at the University of Michigan.