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World Health Organization Responds To Coronavirus

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Staying on the topic of the coronavirus outbreak, the outbreak is believed to have started in Wuhan, China. And in response, the Chinese government has put entire cities on lockdown, and a number of travel bans are in place. But despite the growing number of infections and deaths, the World Health Organization decided to hold off on declaring this an emergency of international concern.

And this made us wonder about how the World Health Organization determines what counts as an emergency. And we also wondered whether powerful countries like China are able to influence these policies and procedures. So we've called on Kelley Lee to help us understand what's going on. She is a professor of global health governance at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She has worked as a consultant for the World Health Organization.

Professor Lee, thank you so much for joining us.

KELLEY LEE: Pleasure.

MARTIN: So, before we get into the specifics of the coronavirus, can you tell us what you make of the World Health Organization's decision to not declare this as an emergency of global concern? Does that seem right to you?

LEE: It does to me. I know a lot of people are disagreeing with that decision. It's a very important decision. When the World Health Organization declares a public health emergency of international concern, there's lots of implications in terms of resources, in terms of the level of support that WHO provides to the country and just generally, you know, the international community's response.

But there's also a lot of economic implications. So when an emergency is declared, one can imagine that the country's economic system takes a battering because people don't want to travel to the country. Trade slows down. The business community gets very, very nervous, as we've seen. So there's a lot of economic ripples that happen. So I think WHO is trying to balance the severity of the outbreak, where it is occurring, the patterns of infection, all these things against also the larger implications for the country, for the world economy.

MARTIN: Over a decade ago, China went through another outbreak with SARS. And we know that China's global influence has drastically grown since then. But there are questions about how forthcoming the government was about the severity of the outbreak then. Just based on your experience, I mean, how did they interact with the World Health Organization then? And is it different from how China is working with the WHO today?

LEE: The SARS outbreak occurred at a time when China was beginning to transition to more of a middle-income country. So, as we know, their economy experienced double-digit growth year upon year and so on. What didn't happen, though, was that there wasn't a lot of investment in public health infrastructure during that time.

So when the SARS outbreak occurred, this exposed this lack of investment, and that slowed their response. They were concerned about, you know, how people would view the country. They didn't want people to be fearful in terms of investment, travel to China and so on. So that's kind of reminiscent of what we're seeing now, is this kind of fearfulness, this closed kind of lack of sharing of information when we really do need as much accurate information as possible.

MARTIN: We get the sense that this story is going to be with us for a while. What are some of the things that you will be watching for as this story develops?

LEE: First, like many public health people, we need to know more about this specific disease. So, as you, you know, mentioned, a lot of people are looking at this and trying to figure out things like how severe the illness is, what's the case fatality rate. But I think more fundamentally and trickier in many ways, I'll be following how this outbreak leads to how we seek to strengthen global health governance.

MARTIN: That is Kelley Lee. She is a professor of global health governance at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Professor Lee, thank you so much for talking with us. I hope we'll talk again.

LEE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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