Germany’s health minister has urged the US to stay in the World Health Organization, while acknowledging that the UN body was too dependent on some of its member states and needed an overhaul.
Jens Spahn told the Financial Times that the organisation was susceptible to “influence by individual members” and “must become less dependent on [those] countries”. “But it’s a different thing entirely to say we don’t need the WHO any more,” he added.
“In the middle of a crisis, when you’re putting out fires, you can’t talk about reforming the fire brigade,” said Mr Spahn. “First, we have to deal with the crisis, and only then talk about the WHO.”
The German minister was speaking days after US president Donald Trump threatened to withdraw from the WHO unless it demonstrated independence from China. The president has repeatedly sought to blame China for the spread of Covid-19, which first emerged in the eastern Chinese city of Wuhan, and accused the WHO of helping Beijing hide the truth about the outbreak. He froze US funding for the organisation last month.
Without mentioning China, Mr Spahn said that the US “does have a point — the WHO needs to reform its governance and accountability”. “We need to figure out exactly where the money goes,” he said.
The German politician said he would be “very sorry” to see the US leave, saying its contribution to the organisation’s work was critical.
“Of course the US, Germany, Europe — we can do a lot on our own, but there are a lot of countries in the world that can’t,” he said. “They need support and they should get it. If Ebola breaks out in another part of the world then we’ll no longer be able to control it.”
Germany has frequently expressed dismay at Mr Trump’s America-first policies and mistrust of multilateral institutions. Berlin in particular was critical of the US president’s decision to take the US out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.
A leading figure in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union who is frequently talked of as a potential future chancellor, Mr Spahn has emerged as one of the main public faces of Germany’s fight against Covid-19.
The country has been more successful than many of its neighbours at containing the pandemic. As of Sunday, it had 178,281 recorded cases of coronavirus and 8,246 deaths from the disease, yielding a fatality rate of below 5 per cent — much lower than those of Spain, Italy, France and the UK. Germany was able to impose less stringent lockdown measures than its neighbours and has moved to relax them more quickly.
Mr Spahn pinned his country’s relative success on large-scale, early testing for the virus — it carried out 425,000 tests last week alone — as well as effective contact-tracing.
But a recent spate of outbreaks in German care homes and slaughterhouses has triggered fears that Covid-19 could start spreading again. Mr Spahn said the cases highlighted “that the virus is still with us”.
“It also shows how quickly it can spread if you give it a chance — where hygiene and social distancing is not strictly adhered to, say, in workers’ hostels,” he said.
“But it’s also a good sign, because it shows that we have identified the outbreaks,” he added. “And where that happens, we can carry out lots of tests and find everyone who is infected.” Last week Mr Spahn said Germany would carry out systematic preventive Covid-19 tests in hospitals and care homes.
Mr Spahn has been criticised in some German media for comments during the earliest stages of the corona pandemic. Speaking on German TV news on January 23, he said the symptoms of Covid-19 were milder than the flu.
He defended those remarks in his interview with the FT. “We were very influenced by what we found out from China, which at that point wasn’t very much,” he said. “And the first cases in Germany were very mild.”
“We only saw the severe symptoms later, in northern Italy. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have expressed myself differently.”
Asked about the prospects for a vaccine, Mr Spahn said he was “looking forward to one emerging, but I’m not going to give any dates”. “We’ve been trying for ages to come up with a general flu vaccine, and one for HIV,” he said.
Asked if Germany should brace itself for a second upsurge in cases now that it had relaxed its shutdown, he said the country was “preparing for all eventualities”. “We are vigilant. But whether, when and how [we’ll have a second wave] — not even a virologist can give you a definitive answer.”