A Case for Revamping the WHO

The current situation is going to go down the pages of history as one of the greatest challenges that the world has ever faced. The world has seen over four million Covid-19 cases as of this writing and we are still at least quite far from landing upon a definite vaccine. The only potential solution to come out of this crisis is international cooperation and faith in multilateral institutions. However, the pursuit of this solution becomes feasible only when the sanctity of international institutions is maintained. Only when countries and people can confide in such institutions without an iota of doubt, only then can this solution be actually be followed in its true spirit and only then can it bring about positive results.

With this in the back of our mind, we shall now look at the allegations that have been faced by the World Health Organization (WHO) with respect to its role in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. Lately, the President of the United States, Mr. Donald Trump, made a statement, “Today I am instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organisation while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organisation’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus. Everybody knows what has gone on there.”

In the wake of plummeting death tolls in the United States and the detrimental impact of the pandemic on their economy, President Trump chose to point out how investigations into the human-to-human transmission aspects pertaining to the disease should have been analyzed in December 2019 itself.

This critique has emerged from the amount of time that the WHO took to declare the Covid-19 as a pandemic. It was on the 31st of December 2019 when the novel coronavirus was officially identified and on the very next day Incident Management Support Team of WHO was set up. WHO continued to share all the available information from China with the rest of the world, and soon the first case of Covid-19 outside China was reported in Thailand on 14th January 2020. By 22nd January 2020 the WHO expressed its speculations about the potential for human to human transmissions cases of Covid-19. It was only by 30th January 2020 that the WHO chose to declare the disease as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. By this time, there were “7818 total confirmed cases worldwide, with the majority of these in China, and 82 cases reported in 18 countries outside China”, said WHO.

The amount of time taken by the WHO to finally declare the disease as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern has been the major cause for criticism that it has been received from President Trump and some other countries and international agencies. Further the fact that the WHO praised China’s strategy of dealing with the crisis has again become a point of contention for several international actors especially when it is being speculated that China might have not shared the exact and complete information with the rest of the world.

This is not the first time that WHO is being criticized for its response to an outbreak. Even in 2014 the amount of time the WHO took to declare Ebola as an international emergency was very slow. The WHO took five months to do so. “But in 2009, it was accused of the opposite – being quick to over-react on the H1N1 swine-flu outbreak, and unnecessarily declaring a global pandemic” (BBC).

The implications after every kind of outbreak are going to prompt some kind of reactions from member states especially from the badly affected ones; hence, it is only natural for the WHO to receive some sort of criticism. So how is the situation different in case of the current criticism? The difference lies in the way in which Dr. Tedros was elected to the position of Director General in July 2017. US, UK and Canada had been fielding his opponent but he won because of the support from “a bloc of African and Asian countries, including China, which has considerable influence with those members” (The Guardian). Currently, when WHO was criticized for having praised China for the handling of crisis despite the alleged suppression of certain early whistle-blowing medical professionals in the country, Dr. Tedros claimed to stand by this stance. The arguments over WHO’s alleged role in shielding China continued further when “the government of Taiwan claimed that the WHO had ignored its own early reports of human-to-human transmission of coronavirus as part of a larger history of appeasing China – which has blocked Taiwan from joining the WHO (and the UN) for decades” (The Guardian).

Such a scenario poses certain serious questions on the credibility of the WHO, even if no nexus exists between China and the WHO. The traceable linkages between member-states and heads of international institutions allow room for allegations to emerge. Even when a more obvious reason for the outbreak to have taken such a bad shape in some countries has been a result of the lack of administrative response to WHO’s guidelines and Public Health Emergency of International Concern declaration, still such linkages dilute the impact of such more prominent factors. Furthermore, the allegations against WHO make it difficult for people and nations to have faith in international institutions when the main function of such bodies is to mitigate in matters of worldwide concerns. Therefore, it is essential that when members are elected to the topmost positions in institutions like WHO, then it is ensured that the candidates contesting for such profiles are outside the ambit of being blamed the way it is happening now. It is essential that countries develop the habit of coming to consensus while taking decisions for choosing the heads in case of such international bodies as only then can all the nations can be on the same page when while mitigating worldwide issues.

Now Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been expressing its demand to collaborate with all the member states of the WHO and conduct an independent review of the situation so as to find out the source of the virus and also to review the response mechanism of the WHO. Further, “Morrison wants reform of the governance of the WHO, with one element being removing the right of individual members to veto proposed health strategies” (The Guardian). Even India joined this debate when Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi had mentioned at the recent G20 virtual summit that WHO needs to reform to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It appears, as per some news reports, the US wants India to support its position on WHO and further speak against China.

If nations are going align themselves in this way then (again) one particular bloc might end up dominating the response mechanism in the WHO or at least allow such speculations to develop the way it is happening in case of China as of now. Therefore, it is important that any demand for restructuring the WHO should necessarily do away with the possibility of allowing any one country or bloc to dominate its affairs. Stronger tools should be allocated to the WHO so that it can function more effectively in case of pandemics and outbreaks.

Collaboration might still be the most effective tool to deal with problems that concern peoples of all countries. The efficacy of such a tool is proportional to the degree of transparency that is adhered to by international institutions. Even if there was a slightest of the delay on part of the WHO in declaring Covid-19 as pandemic due to bureaucratic or administrative reasons (if not for political reasons), it definitely calls for a revamp of the institution to better deal with any future health emergencies or pandemics.

-Contributed by Richa Bhatt

Picture: WHO Director-General Mr. Tedros Adhanom (Credits – / AFP / Getty Images)

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