Allow WHO to fix its void

by Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, May 30,2020


A news programme shows Chinese president Xi Jinping speaking via video link to the World Health Assembly, on a giant screen beside a street in Beijing on May 18. — Asia Power Watch/Xinhua

AT THE end of the debilitating World War II, the victors rewrote political history and developed new institutions to bring about fundamental changes in the global order. The victorious Allied Forces felt that they needed a new global department of public health. Andrija Stampar, a round-faced, bespectacled Yugoslavian doctor opened the first-ever World Health Assembly in 1948.

The leading lights of global health assembled in Geneva to hear him explain how the effort to create the World Health Organisation was ‘never impaired by any important disharmony.’

How the world has changed. The 73rd WHA, held in May 18–19, is unprecedented for many reasons. It has taken place as the COVID-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people and is causing a deep global recession. The deliberations were held via video conference and were cut from a week down to two days. And they took place in an atmosphere of bitter recrimination between America and China.

The geopolitical battle has largely ensnared WHO, just when it is supposed to be engaged seriously in coordinating the response to the coronavirus. America has, for its own reasons, halted some $400m of funding to WHO pending an investigation of accusations that it had failed to investigate China’s COVID-19 outbreak promptly. America has also accused the organisation of being ‘China-centric’. Perhaps, America-centric would be a more accurate word to describe the realities.

The agency is stuffed with American experts from the National Institutes of Health, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and many others. Moreover, America is the biggest financial contributor to the agency by far. China for its part is tightly vetting the research that its scientists are allowed to publish on the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

President Donald Trump has sought to brand the virus as a Chinese export. He is also promoting a (not proven) theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory even though a natural origin is still the most likely explanation. America has withdrawn funding from one of its own NGOs that was working with Chinese scientists to try to identify places in southern China that are at a high risk of transferring coronaviruses to humans.

A Chinese official has, meanwhile, accused American soldiers of bringing the virus to Wuhan, where it was first detected.

The global institution WHO has reminded that the assembly of considering a draft resolution on COVID-19. But Lawrence Gostin, head of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, says he expects China to block any kind of independent investigation of how the outbreak began. On May 15, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told a press conference that the time is ‘not yet ripe’ to start an investigation. And in a speech to the assembly on May 18, China’s president Xi Jinping defended his country’s handling of the pandemic and said that it would support a ‘comprehensive review’ of the global response when it was over.

Just before the meeting opened, member states had agreed to put off discussions of the divisive issue of whether Taiwan should be granted observer status at the assembly. An observer status, granted to major NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Gavi (an alliance to promote vaccines), gives members the right to speak at the WHA but not to vote. But an observer status is also a step towards the recognition of a state’s sovereignty, which is why Taiwan seeks it and China opposes it. In practical terms, Taiwan is free to attend the assembly and follow proceedings over the internet.

Although regarded by China as its own territory, Taiwan attended as an observer between 2009 and 2016 when it was led by a president, Ma Ying-jeou, who was considered more accommodating towards China than the current leader Tsai Ing-wen.

This year, however, Taiwan’s exclusion is particularly unfortunate. Its action to control COVID-19 has been exemplary. A country of 24 million people, with strong connections to mainland China, has suffered just seven deaths caused by the novel coronavirus. Its request for admission to the WHA was supported by America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and a collection of mostly small Pacific and Caribbean island-states, and some Latin American countries. But if it had come to a vote, many more countries would have been reluctant to cross China by backing Taiwan.

The clash has drawn fire on the director general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom, a mild-mannered and amiable Ethiopian. Taiwan’s supporters say that he has the power to invite Taiwan any way. In fact, he does not have this authority because he is not empowered to overrule member states. Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu says that WHO members have suggested that discussions about Taiwan take place later this year, when health officials are able to meet in Geneva.

America’s criticism of Dr Tedros is widely off the mark. Global health cooperation is far from perfect. But keeping politics out of WHO has allowed the world to cajole even secretive and repressive regimes to keep their doors open wide enough to allow scientists, doctors and experts to work together across borders and save lives. Dr Tedros, elected by governments to run a technical and scientific organisation, is the diplomatic grease on the hinges of those doors. He must be polite to everyone for the sake of global health.

He has to tend the dying flames of international cooperation and even praise how countries respond when there is much to criticise. He is also facing constant, and ugly, racist harassment online. Like many other scientists in the public eye at the moment, he receives death threats.

The new geopolitics may make for spectacle but is an enormous distraction from the pressing issues of global health, not least the effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 300,000 people so far on its march across the planet. One such issue is how new medicines and vaccines against COVID-19 are going to be distributed. Although Trump spoke about cooperation on vaccines, America is reported to oppose the language in a resolution that seeks to ensure access to treatment for all countries.

The contested wording calls for firms to donate their patents for COVID-19 treatment to a global pool that can be used by any state. ‘Vaccines, tests and treatments should be distributed according to need, not auctioned off to the highest bidder’, says José María Vera of Oxfam International, an anti-poverty campaign group. Perhaps because of its large pharmaceutical industry, America also objects to a passage endorsing countries’ right to overturn international patent rules when there is an urgent public-health requirement.

In the world envisaged by Dr Stampar, WHO would now be coming into its own, harnessing international cooperation to halt the new coronavirus. But that world has passed, at least for now, replaced by one in which both America and China find it convenient to blame each other for their own failures at home.

Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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