Why Do the Japanese People Underappreciate the WHO’s Work on Covid-19?

Kiyotaka AKASAKA

When the Pew Research Center in the United States conducted an opinion poll in 14 countries during the summer of 2020 on the WHO’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a median of 63 percent said that the WHO had done a somewhat good or very good job dealing with the outbreak .

In most developed countries, including the United States, the majority of people appreciated the work of the organization, with a notable exception of South Korea and Japan. Two-thirds or more in South Korea (80%) and Japan (67%) expressed their negative view on the work of the WHO.

The Pew Research Center’s poll also observed the same sharp drop of the Japanese people’s favorability of the United Nations to the lowest level (29%) among the 14 countries surveyed. This may have reflected the increased unfavorable views of the Japanese people on the work of the WHO, one of the specialized agencies of the United Nations.

Why have Japan and Korea shown such high levels of negative views about the job done by the WHO? There seem to be several factors which may explain the phenomena.

First, the Japanese press has reported extensively on the international criticism against WHO Director-General Tedros’s handling of the pandemic in its early stage. He was perceived as favoring China by praising its efforts to contain the spread of the virus and thus delaying the announcement of the state of emergency. Later, then U.S. President Trump criticized the WHO vehemently, calling it a “puppet of China” and announced the U.S.’s withdrawal from the organization. Many Japanese people must have followed these pieces of news attentively, and the worsened image of the organization may still be persisting.

Second, people generally underestimate the challenges which the WHO is facing in its operations and its financing. The WHO secretariat is the house of civil servants who act on the instructions of member states. They are constrained by the International Health Regulations which member states have set for what the organization can and cannot do. The IHR does not give sufficient maneuverability to the WHO secretariat and the organization is short of financial resources to move quickly at the time of crisis. When things do not go well, it is, in reality, often the fault of member states, not the secretariat of the organization.

These reasons, however, are not sufficiently convincing as to why Japan and South Korea alone are not appreciative of the WHO’s work as much as European countries and America. There must be another reason specific to these two countries. What makes a startling difference between East Asian countries and Western countries is the fact the pandemic’s death rate in the former is much lower than in the latter. As a result, the self-confidence of Korean and Japanese people that they had managed much better than the Western countries to control the pandemic on their own efforts without particular assistance of the WHO must have played some psychological effect on the polling. It may be a bit preposterous and arrogant if they think that the WHO was useless as far as they are concerned.

There may be other psychological reasons which are specific to Japan and Korea. For example, it has been well-known that both countries have produced Director-Generals of the WHO: Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima from 1988 till 1998; and Dr. J.W. Lee from 2003 till 2006. I worked at the WHO secretariat as a political advisor to Dr. Nakajima in the mid-1990s and realized that while Dr. Nakajima had been heavily criticized for his management failures, he did an excellent job for controlling the pandemics of HIV/AIDS and the Ebola in former Zaire. Dr. Lee was a specialist of the polio eradication campaign and he died tragically during his first tenure as the head of the organization. It is inevitable that Mr. Tedros will be compared to these predecessors and his rating in the two countries may turn out to be lower than otherwise.

The WHO is one of the most important UN specialized agencies, and Japan has long been a staunch supporter of it. In view of mounting global health agenda and the incessant appearance of new infectious diseases, Japan is expected to help revitalize the WHO in collaboration with its partners and stakeholders. Now that the United States is back to multilateral cooperation under the Biden administration, it is high time that the reform of the WHO should be pursued vigorously.

The best way for Japan to lift the favorability of the WHO among its people and gain their support for the work to strengthen it may be to regain the leadership of the organization after Mr. Tedros. While Japan has currently lagged behind other countries in Covid-19 vaccine distribution, she has long proven to be highly effective and successful in public health policies and measures. Japan has enough resources and know-hows to support the leader who leads the organization, and I am confident that we can find a good candidate for the job.

(This article is a modified version of the article in the “Japan in Their Own Words” of the English Speaking Union of Japan.)

Kiyotaka Akasaka was a diplomat in Japan’s Foreign Service serving in a number of international organizations including the U.N. and the WHO. He is former President, Foreign Press Center of Japan.