WHO Did What When: The COVID-19 Angle

Danny Quah
5 min readMay 7, 2020


In Geneva on Fri 01 May 2020 Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organisation defended the timeliness of his agency’s information dissemination on the novel coronavirus ( ST-2020.05.03-WHO-Declaration-Enough-Time). Yet others have leveled charges against WHO of disinformation, and indeed of “helping Communist China cover up […] the threat of the Coronavirus” ( WSJ-2020.04.05-WHO-Coronavirus-Disinformation).

This article only seeks to tabulate a relevant timeline on the beginnings of the coronavirus spread, WHO actions, and the most visible responses across different economies. Many consistent but different timelines are of course valuable to construct: each will be of greater interest to different audiences. Different nations will have different reasons for the policy measures they undertook: the account I give does not attempt to say there is one ideal modality of response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Lockdowns and circuit-breakers — my focus in the tabulation — are of course not the only policy responses that have been valuable in countering COVID-19. But they (or commentary on their absence) provide the most visible, easily documentable response to help calibrate the timeliness of WHO’s actions, on the one hand, and, on the other, reactions in different economies around the world.

To conclude, the timeline below seeks to provide a basis for discussing WHO and different responses around the world, founded on a common understanding of facts. This article does not try to pre-judge an outcome on the dispute that began this writeup.

But if we are going to argue, let’s at least agree on the set of facts to begin. Any extract from the full tabulation will, by definition, be selective, even if all that it ends up doing is guide the eye to further details. If we count day 0 to be WHO’s declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, then an extract of the table is:

Day -19 — Chinese scientists published on open science networks — Virological.org and GenBank — the complete genome sequence of novel coronavirus (Horton). China’s National Health Commission repeated its assertion of no evidence of human transmission and no medical worker infections.

Day -17 — China top officials secretly determined likely facing pandemic from novel coronavirus in Wuhan (AP), but said nothing to the public. First case outside China recorded in Thailand (AP).

Day -16 — WHO tweeted ‘no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission in China’.

Day -11 — China’s respiratory specialist Nanshan ZHONG announced human-human transmission JHU.

Day -10 — China’s President Xi Jin Ping warned the public that a pandemic was likely from a novel coronovirus (AP).

Day -9 — First confirmed case in US, in Washington state; someone who had traveled from China the previous week (CBS).

Day -7 — China imposed lockdown on Wuhan (Lancet, 16 Mar 2020, NYT 22 Jan 2020, JHU). WHO’s Tedros recommends airport screening and testing facilities but not a travel ban.

Day -7 — WHO’s Emergency Committee heard China’s evidence on death rates, infection, and geographical spread associated with the novel coronavirus. The Committee noted both human-to-human transmission and a preliminary estimate of R0 of between 1.4 and 2.5. However, the Committee — including representation from the US, China, Japan, Canada, France, and Australia — disagreed on whether a Public Health Emergency of International Concern should be declared. Instead, WHO was asked to consider a system that would be less restrictive, i.e., not just PHEIC/no PHEIC, but instead that allowed varying levels of threat and alarm.

Day -6 — Lancet article on coronavirus by Chinese scientists describing pandemic potential and high mortality with evidence of efficient human transmission, and recommending testing upon suspicion and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

Day -1 — Tedros praised China’s efforts to contain the virus, including locking down large parts of the country.

Day 0

Day +1 — Italian government suspended all flights between Italy and China; declared a state of emergency duration six months: The first EU member state to take such a precautionary measure.

Day +2 — Trump announced travel restrictions on people coming from China; US declared public health emergency (CBS).

Day +10 — Trump said, “The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year,” suggesting the relative insignificance of the 15 COVID-19 cases thus far reported in the US (CBS)

Day +36 — US confirmed 402 new COVID-19 cases. Trump said, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.” (CBS)

Day +41 — India’s Health Ministry said the coronavirus ‘is not a health emergency’.

Day +43 — US confirmed 2700 new cases. Trump declared national emergency (CBS)

Day +43 — The UK government described its strategy of herd immunity, allowing enough who are going to get mildly ill to become immune. This herd immunity strategy would be reversed after the weekend.

Day +44 — Spain declared state of emergency, restricting movement for over 46mn people, shutting non-essential businesses, and closing external borders with European neighbours. Disallowed outdoor movement (including exercise), except for pharmacy and grocery shopping. Police and military enforced the lockdown. DW-Europe-lockdown

Day 47 — France strict nationwide lockdown; residents allowed out only for grocery shopping DW-Europe-lockdown

Day 49 — Number of COVID-19 deaths in Italy first exceeded those in China (CNN). Taiwan closes borders to noresidents.

Day 52 — Germany issued strict social distancing measures but not lockdown, although the individual states of Bavaria and Saarland did impose the latter on their residents DW-Europe-lockdown

Day 54 — Modi announced on TV at 2000h that from midnight all of India would be under lockdown; all markets closed; all transportation disallowed.

Day 55 — Trump suggested hydroxychloroquine as potential coronavirus treatment (CBS).

Day 56 — The US became the world’s lead nation in COVID-19 confirmed cases NYT.

Day 57 — Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko called the coronavirus a “frenzy and psychosis”, suggesting citizens “hit the sauna, down some vodka, and get back to work” (WP-2020.03)

Day 58 — With most of Europe under lockdown, Sweden kept open kindergartens, bars, restaurants, sports clubs, hairdressers, although not universities and upper secondary schools. Gatherings allowed if no more than 50 (G-2020.03.28-Sweden). Putin ordered a month-long national holiday in Russia, so that the entire country took off from work. Tough new laws on local lockdown DW-Europe-lockdown.

Day 76 — Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro called the coronavirus “a media frenzy” and “a little flu”, criticising social isolation measures and the state governors who introduced them.

The table in detail:

The 31 Dec 2019 email from Taiwan has drawn considerable attention. So here is a screenshot (subsequently also tweeted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, 11 Apr 2020):

Originally published at http://www.dannyquah.com on May 7, 2020.



Danny Quah

Danny Quah is Dean and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.