WHO’s unexplained hesitancy

At a time of panic, the WHO is releasing information on the coronavirus in dribs and drabs

Updated - January 23, 2020 01:08 am IST

Published - January 23, 2020 12:15 am IST

Reporters at the World Health Organisation headquarters in Geneva on January 22, 2020.

Reporters at the World Health Organisation headquarters in Geneva on January 22, 2020.

As the novel coronavirus, first identified in Wuhan City of Hubei Province in China, is spreading across China and three other countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) has taken to Twitter to keep the public updated. With Twitter not available in China, WHO has been regularly posting updates on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site. Unfortunately, WHO’s updates have come in dribs and drabs. The WHO website, including the coronavirus news page, was finally updated on January 21, four days after the last update. Even on Twitter, there seems to be some unexplained hesitancy on WHO’s part to retweet important information about the virus that is being tweeted by the WHO Western Pacific Region.

Major developments

When the WHO website was updated on January 17, the number of confirmed cases reported stood at 41 and deaths at two. The silence on the WHO website for four days became especially pronounced given some major developments. One, the number of confirmed cases increased. On January 21 morning, the WHO Western Pacific Region handle tweeted that the number of confirmed cases rose to 222 and the total number of deaths, all in Wuhan, stood at four. In the evening, the WHO website updated the number of deaths to six and total number of cases to 282. On January 22, China’s National Health Commission reported 440 confirmed cases and Chinese officials confirmed that the death toll had gone up to 17. Strangely, the WHO has neither tweeted nor posted on its website an update on the new cases or deaths.

Two, in China, the virus spread from Wuhan to 13 provinces — there are 26 confirmed cases in Guangdong province, 10 in Beijing and nine from Shanghai municipality. Apart from the two imported cases — one in Thailand and one in Japan, mentioned in the January 17 update — two more such cases, in Thailand and South Korea, were reported. Since the last website update on January 21, one imported case each has been reported from the U.S. and Taiwan.

Three, the WHO Western Pacific Region also tweeted that the number of confirmed cases in China includes 15 healthcare workers. The WHO had earlier tweeted that there was limited human-to-human transmission of the virus as those infected had not visited the Huanan seafood wholesale market, where the virus is suspected to have originated. At the time, no healthcare worker had been found infected. The confirmation that healthcare workers are also infected strengthens the evidence that the virus has already acquired the ability to spread among humans. Though more information is needed to understand the full extent of spread, these developments are significant.

It is taking into consideration all these factors that the WHO tweeted saying that it will be convening an Emergency Committee meeting on January 22 to “ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and what recommendations should be made to manage it”.

Twitter is an excellent medium to quickly disseminate information, particularly for the WHO which has 5.1 million people followers. Therefore, it is crucial for the WHO to retweet the important updates of the WHO Western Pacific Region handle (30.3K followers). It is also important for the WHO to keep its coronavirus ‘disease outbreak news’ page on its website regularly updated. It is surprising that the WHO does not consider sharing on its website the information it tweets considering that the website will be the first place people will check for the latest information.

Keeping people informed

On many occasions, the WHO has been accused of not acting on time, especially when new and dangerous viruses make thousands sick and kill many. While it has so far shown alacrity in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, it should not be found wanting in sharing information and updates on multiple platforms. Millions of Chinese are set to travel during the Lunar New Year holiday this week. In these circumstances, it is the WHO’s responsibility to ensure that everyone is fully informed.


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