WHO Knew What When? Part 1: The First 20 Days


The job market is crashing. Debts are skyrocketing. The twin echo chambers called the mainstream and social media have crescendoed their inarticulate cries to a deafening cacophony bound to concern any intergalactic neighbors we may or may not have. While they contemplate whether to call the space police over to our place for a welfare check, a single question rises to the forefront of the din. Who knew what, when in this struggle with COVID-19?

I’ve seen fingers pointed every which way when it comes to this pandemic. This president should have acted sooner, that organization wasn’t being honest, entire dark governments were manipulating the world into a new world order. It was disheartening and the temptation to crawl into bed and curl up until my life and liberties could return to what they once had been was overwhelming. But I’ve always been too much of a control freak for that.

I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, so the amount I could achieve on the front line seems pitiably small despite my essential worker designation. Though, I reasoned, if I took the time to get my facts straight to help spread the truth in a sea of disinformation and accusations, that would be a good use of the anxious energy that I can no longer expend on three am trips to the local super center. Well, as it would turn out, researching while an event is unfolding and while everyone is still fighting over what qualifies as a fact means getting to the truth is almost as much wishful thinking as repeating the word solidarity and expecting wars, opposition, and suffering to evaporate.

Still determined, I went after the source that, at the time, had the least amount of conspiracy and speculation seeped into it. And let me just say for the record, I started at least two or three days before President Trump announced the US would be investigating the WHO’s actions during this crisis. Weaving through their tweets, situation reports, and travel guides I picked apart a timeline and gave myself several headaches as the tiny but undying flame of my optimism that somehow has survived all these years guided me forward and illuminated all the little red flags and curious details. So buckle in ladies and gentlemen for a sarcastic, possibly hindsight biased, look into the truth of what the WHO knew and when they knew it. In their own words, anyway.

Early Action is Key

The most common accusation I see being thrown around is that X, Y, or Z official didn’t take things seriously enough or act quickly enough early on in this series of events. As politicians can only act on the information they are provided with, what the WHO did as an international source of data for illnesses during the first weeks would have set the stage for the decisions that the governments who invest and trust in them would eventually make. The WHO claims that it was first notified of an unknown pathogen causing a cluster of pneumonia cases in China on December 31, 2019(1:1). The first Situation Report on what turned out to be a novel coronavirus was published on the WHO website on January 21, 2020. What happened in that first twenty days and how much impact did it have on where we are now?

According to the situation reports, all branches of the WHO had been alerted of the new pathogen by January 2. By January 3, forty-four cases of the illness had been identified in China. Impressively, the Chinese government claimed to have isolated this new virus, temporarily dubbed 2019-nCoV, by the 7th(1:1) and made their official announcement of the novel coronavirus on January 10(3).

Aside from alerting their various branches and communicating with the Chinese government (1:1), the WHO kept relatively quiet in those first ten days; making only a few tweets on January 9th. The tweets gave a generalized overview of what a coronavirus was: a class of pathogens that had already set SARS and MERS loose on humanity in the twenty first century. These particular illnesses are defined by their leap from an animal host into humans, but from there can range in severity and transmission– particularly whether they can pass from person-to-person– from case to case. They also pointed out that as global surveillance improves, scientists will likely discover new bugs more frequently. (2:1/9)

Right off the bat, if you’ve been keeping up with the news, a handful of keywords jump off the page and smack you square in the jaw. Having them included within the first round of tweets so casually seems oddly on the nose for how important of details they wound up being. Seeing the comparison to SARS and MERS, two deadly illnesses, also seems weird the more time that passes and you’ll see why by the end of this section.

The next piece published by the WHO was an International Travel Guide released on the same day as China’s public announcement. It explained that many of those found infected were vendors at Huanan Seafood Market(3). Later we learn that the Chinese government closed the market, located in Wuhan City, for cleaning on January 1(1:1): a remarkably quick response considering it took six additional days to isolate what was causing the people to become sick, if China is to be believed. Aside from identifying a potential ground zero for the illness, the guide also listed what symptoms to look out for, fever and difficulty breathing, and the observation that there seemed to be “no significant human-to-human transmission” as well as no infections among healthcare workers(3).

Everyone knows the saying, “hindsight is 20/20,” and reading over the guide the first time I had to talk down that inner conspiracy theorist that sits across from the my final hope for humanity and remind myself that just because we know something now, doesn’t mean they knew it at the time. Even if they had already acknowledged it as a possibility both on its own and by comparing it to two other illnesses that did transmit in that way. Time is that immovable ethereal concept that binds us in place no matter the inconvenience.

And the Chinese government was likely already drowning in time-based inconveniences as this novel coronavirus chose to make itself known in Wuhan, a hub of domestic and international travel, right on the cusp of the Chinese New Year; a tourism boom(3). With a limited amount of information, almost fifty cases identified in three days, and the looming comparison to SARS and MERS, what guidance did the WHO give to contain this new pathogen that as of yet was limited to only this one city? If you guessed “postpone your planned trip until the situation was better understood,” the we have a lot in common with one another. Unfortunately we think nothing like the WHO who recommended no travel restrictions of any kind, even to the point of outright advising against it.(3)

With the information they had from China the WHO felt, despite everything that was still unanswered, it was perfectly safe for all travel to continue to the metropolitan area during one of the busiest times of the year. As long as health clinics, travel agencies, and points of entry made a point of providing the public with the correct set of tools to protect themselves, everything was predicted to turn out fine. The tools: avoid anyone who seemed sick, wash your hands frequently, don’t touch animals–dead or alive–and cough into your elbow or a tissue(3). Simple steps that we’ve all heard before that can prevent the interruption of travel plans or the flow of commerce.

There were a few more tips in the guide. Travel agents were to encourage travelers to seek medical attention immediately if they started to feel sick, remembering to alert their doctors of where they had been recently. Okay… And if air crew members noticed a passenger on their craft starting to display signs or symptoms of an acute respiratory infection, they should register their information and submit the report to the proper health authorities. : ) That report would be used alongside a passenger locator to obtain their contact information should any sick passengers need followup contact. 8 ) (3)

Hey, WHO… Are you SURE it’s safe to go to Wuhan? Because you sound like a scientist trying to hide that you let a head crab loose into the Locked Doors and Ventilation Shafts museum. And while your tweets on January 12 praising China for their transparency and willingness to share their knowledge speak of your trust of the regime, to the point that you released the now infamous tweet denying person-to-person transmission(2:1/12), I am having a bit of trouble extending the same trust to you after reading that China informed you that the virus started at the seafood market on the 11th and 12th(1:1) after you wrote about it on the 10th(3) after they closed it down for deep cleaning and environmental sanitation on the 1st(1:1). That seems like… maybe… you’re having a tiny bit of trouble keeping your story straight.

No, wait, I need to focus. Let’s not jump to conclusions, we’re only half way between the WHO finding out and sharing their first situation report and, as they themselves admit, there is still too much we don’t know and more research to be done. At least in this point in the game it’s still only in Wuhan with no reports elsewhere. (2:1/12)

Until the very next day when when Thailand imported their first case in a traveler from Wuhan(1:1). The message seemed to be received by one party since the 14th saw China ignoring the WHO’s assertions that entrance and exit screenings offered little practical use(3) and installing infrared thermometers at airports, train stations, and bus stops around the city(1:1). The WHO spent that day commenting on the statuses of concerned individuals who had seen a Reuters article tweeted out claiming that there might actually be person-to-person transmission of the virus(pic) and that there was a patient in Wuhan who was a frequenter of a completely different wet market than the one at the center of the the outbreak(2:1/14).

The added safety measures ultimately weren’t made soon enough to stop another case from arriving in Japan on the 15th(1:1) but it seems like an impressively fast response time for the CCP government. Though when you peek ahead and see that on January 22 the WHO reported a case in Taiwan, referring to them as little more than a city of China, whose symptoms would have begun on January 11(1:2), it starts to look as suspect as the lack of reporting of China’s new measures until the situation report seven days after they were put into place. Whether or not you are of the opinion this case was known about sooner than it was reported, it had become clear that it wouldn’t take until a holiday for the new malady to make its way around the world(2:1/16) and I feel it might have been more useful to start issuing the situation reports or update the travel guide as opposed to simply restating that they knew nothing for certain other than that they need more research(2:1/16).

Thailand followed in China’s footsteps in ignoring the WHO’s wishy-washy guidelines and set up their own entry screening points on the 17th(1:1). It isn’t until the 23rd that the WHO mentioned the United States, in addition to the CDC establishing a COVID Incident Management Structure on January 7, set up entry screening points at the three biggest airports to check anyone who had come from or laid over in Wuhan at the same time(1:3). What they did tweet in this time frame was a series of tips for how to stay safe in wet markets (none of which were to stay far away from them as humanly possible) and a reminder that it wasn’t safe to eat animals that were sick or had died of disease(2:1/18).

Just like how it had managed to worm its way into different nations, the 2019-nCoV virus was caught leaving the confines of Wuhan for different regions of China(2:1/19). In a blink and you’ll miss it tweet the same day, the WHO mention that–while animals were still considered the primary source of the illness–there was starting to be limited signs of person-to-person transmission between close contacts(2:1/19) Two days later with the release of the situation report it becomes evident that their change in attitude might be due to two cases found in the Guangdong province who had no personal history of traveling to Wuhan, though a close acquaintance had(1:1). However, these cases were supposedly identified on the 20th(1:1), one day after the tweet, meaning something else might have been in play. (Here’s a hint for part two, I already brought it up.)

January 20 seemed to be the day to get the ball rolling as the first case arrived in South Korea(1:1) and an emergency committee was announced to be in the works for the purpose of deciding whether China’s little problem was shaping up into a international matter of public health(2:1/20).

Most importantly, by the time the first Situation Report was posted early on January 21, 2020 there were 278* confirmed cases of this illness and six deaths(1:1). Later that day the US announced their first case(2:1/21). This prompted the CDC to enact the emergency response system the same day, raising the alert for travelers to level two with an advisory to the elderly and those with compromised systems, the primary suffers of the disease(1:3).

That’s a lot of information packed into (mainly) two reports and two-thirds of a month of tweets. I decided around page four of my outline that this would need to be more than one part and the spaces in between those lines of text that seem to scream out additional information don’t make it any easier. Even if that’s just an overreaction, what isn’t are the two big patterns being set up that continue through this entire saga. I’ll leave you with these to mull over for the next part.

Pattern one
  1. The WHO makes a claim about the virus based on China’s research.
  2. The WHO distances themselves by claiming limited understanding.
  3. Something happens that proves the claim wrong.
  4. The WHO alters their statement as little as possible to fit these new parameters (i.e. changing from ‘little evidence supporting’ to ‘some evidence in limited circumstances’).
Pattern Two
  1. The WHO makes a suggestion to the nations for how to combat the virus.
  2. The WHO words and repeats their suggestion to not be a suggestion.
  3. Listening to the suggestion has terrible consequences for nations.
  4. Nations make their own decisions about how to proceed.
  5. The WHO sulks and belittles their decision with all the tact of a teenager vague posting on Facebook.

It’s a lot to take in, and even more to stomach, but I hope you’ll come back for the next part of this deep dive. I’d appreciate the companionship in this ever-evolving headache.

  1. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports
  2. https://twitter.com/WHO
  3. https://www.who.int/news-room/articles-detail/who-advice-for-international-travel-and-trade-in-relation-to-the-outbreak-of-pneumonia-caused-by-a-new-coronavirus-in-china/

*All counts are those from the WHO who got them from China. The count controversy will be another article and for now, this is all we have.

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