WHO should focus less on lifestyle choices and more on protecting public health

Hong Kong should speak up about the WHO and its recent spread of misinformation regarding smokers and the likelihood of contracting COVID-19.

Photo: World Health Organization logo under magnifying glass by Marco Verch. Copyright license.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in China earlier this year, more than two million people in the world have been infected, thousands of people have died and many countries are in lockdown to try and prevent the virus from spreading.

Alongside the provision of medical aids and protective equipment, combating misinformation is currently one of the biggest challenges facing governments, international health and regulatory authorities worldwide.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) was founded as the UN global health body in 1948 with a mandate to promote global health, protect against infectious disease and to serve the vulnerable. It was inspired by the international sanitary conferences of the 19th century set up to combat communicable diseases such as cholera, yellow fever and the plague.

We need a World Health Organization, but not the one in its current guise. Whether it’s their slow response to rebutting Andrew Wakefield’s bogus research linking the MMR vaccine to autism, or a failure to address the global COVID-19 pandemic or the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the WHO’s record on public health has been an unmitigated disaster.

It’s sad to see the decline of such a body which helped bring about the global eradication of Smallpox and Polio. 

Using the outbreak as its cover, WHO has been responsible for the nurturing of misinformation about lifestyle choices and medical conditions. They recently issued a Q&A on smoking and COVID-19 on 24 March that said, “Smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as the act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips, which increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth.”

There is no actual studied data to prove the relationship between COVID-19 and smokers. The Hong Kong Hospital Authority and the Department of Health have a high degree of transparency handling the COVID-19 data. A press conference is held almost every day to explain the latest situation in Hong Kong, even the social and physical conditions of around 1,000 patients are disclosed. None of them mentioned the relation between smoking and COVID-19. In case of misinformation, it is very dangerous and irresponsible to draw conclusions, and it will not help at all to cope with the current crisis.

The WHO made scientifically unproven claims that smoking is linked to a higher risk of COVID-19 infection.

The dangers of smoking are well known; however, there is no proven positive correlation between smoking and a vulnerability to COVID-19. As an international public health organisation, the statement made by the WHO regarding this issue failed to carry any supporting evidence.

By contrast, a report from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on 28 March found that only 1.3 percent of the US’ COVID-19 cases were current smokers, almost one-tenth the adult smoking rate of 14 percent across the country. 

Based on these findings, we can say the statement made by the WHO – smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 – is wrong. Indeed, the largest US study of COVID-19 found that old and obese people are more likely to be hospitalised with the coronavirus than cancer or lung disease patients. The researchers said “surprisingly” there was no association between smoking and an increased risk of falling seriously ill with the virus.

News such as this, coupled with President Trump cutting the USA’s funding contribution, certainly calls the WHO’s credibility and the veracity of their recommendations into question. When they cast the net wider, over lifestyle choices in general, we see that the WHO guidelines become not just misleading, but farcical. A study from the University of New South Wales in Australia revealed that people touch their face, on average, 23 times an hour. If this is the case, should all governments in the world ban finger foods like potato chips, popcorn or even fried chicken, to avoid harmful contact?

Eating with hands has a long historical culture in Asia. In Chinese culture, Hong Kong people prepare New Year boxes for visiting guests. Indians commonly eat using their hands while the Japanese eat sushi and rice balls by hand. The boxes contain seeds and nuts, which will be eaten directly by hand. But for the time being, there is no evidence to prove that these eating habits are related to the spread of COVID-19. On the contrary, more people in western countries who use tableware have been infected with COVID-19.

During this pandemic, people are eager to obtain accurate information from reliable sources, such as the peer-reviewed studies above. Whilst the WHO may no longer be considered the most reputable international public health organisation, it still has a responsibility to promote evidence-based recommendations and not spread misinformation.

While the Hong Kong SAR is not listed as a member of the WHO, China is. After the US, China is the organisation’s largest financial contributor. Control over China’s funding is something Hong Kong’s government may not have, but it does have control over whether or not it will warn the public of misinformation. Even if propagated by such a prominent organisation largely funded by HK’s sovereign, the government has a responsibility to guide its people with the truth – not conjecture.

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the author

Raymond Ho Man Kit is community activist, columnist and radio personality in Hong Kong. He has appeared in written and electronic media including Ming Pao and AM730 as a regular columnist and guest host on Metro Radio. He was a District Councillor representing Sai Kung residents from 2004 to 2019. He is the founder of Momentum 107, aka M107, an activist group and government watchdog holding the government to account for Article 107 of the Basic Law which states the HKSAR "shall follow the principle of keeping the expenditure within the limits of revenues in drawing up its budget, and strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficits and keep the budget commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product."