Should we all wear face masks? Is asymptomatic transmission of the coronavirus rare? Are shutdowns and forced social distancing really necessary? Anyone relying on the World Health Organisation for answers can be excused for feeling confused. The United Nations agency or its spokespeople have flip-flopped on all these questions. But should it be judged harshly for this? Having previously said there was not enough evidence to justify the public wearing masks, the WHO has changed its stance after new research. It now recommends masks on public transport and in crowds, and for those over 60 or with medical conditions. On Monday the agency said asymptomatic transmission was very rare. On Tuesday it thought again, with infectious diseases expert Maria van Kerkhove saying: “We don’t actually have that answer yet”. Recently, it said the last thing countries should be doing was lifting lockdowns. Now Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies expert, suggests other countries could learn from Sweden, which did not shut down and asked its citizens to do their own social distancing. The confusion and mixed messages only make controlling the pandemic that much more difficult, experts say. Before we point the finger, perhaps we should consider the highly uncertain state of knowledge about the disease. For example, we still have a flow of contradictory or inconsistent research papers; this is the first deadly infectious disease with such a high rate of cases with no symptoms; reports from different places throw up anomalies in contagion, involving age groups, gender, race and blood types. Politics has come into play, raising international tensions and questions about the WHO’s performance. The WHO has been caught in the middle. Its global health bureaucrats are the least prepared to go to war with an unknown disease and deal with a complicated and volatile political situation at the same time. Confusion reigns as WHO scrambles advice on masks and virus spread The agency’s missteps will not be forgotten. In fairness, it should be acknowledged that it is a toothless advisory body reliant on powers of persuasion, voluntary compliance and accurate, timely data from its members, and that criticism often reflects the advantage of hindsight. That said, an uncertain and easily confused world needs the WHO to stay on message and speak with one voice.