From the start, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been at the center of the Covid-19 storm. While its response to the pandemic has been frequently criticised, the ensuing controversies during the war against the virus and the political reactions to it have also raised questions the answer to which will shape the future of WHO itself.
There seems a general consensus that it failed to exercise global health leadership in dealing with the world’s biggest health emergency and, instead, became a tool of global politics, power, and propaganda.
This critique holds that WHO had the ability to question China’s handling of the outbreak in Wuhan so that the organisation could better prepare the world for dangerous diseases. But it failed to act decisively and in time, resulting in the spread of a localised outbreak into a pandemic of monstrous proportions. The criticism raises questions about the WHO’s authority to challenge states during serious outbreaks for the good of global health.
At the core of the debate is the International Health Regulations (IHR), the leading international agreement on infectious diseases and other serious disease events adopted by WHO member states in 2005.
The IHR’s success depends on WHO using its scientific, medical, and public health capabilities to help countries prevent, protect against and respond to disease events The IHR grants WHO the authority to take actions that can challenge how governments exercise sovereignty. It authorises WHO to collect disease-event information from non-Governmental sources, seek verification from governments about such information, and, if necessary, share the information with other states.
It also grants the WHO DirectorGeneral the power to declare a public health emergency of international concern, even if the state experiencing the outbreak objects.
Criticism of WHO during the Covid-19 pandemic has emerged exactly in the context of these authorities. Claims that WHO turned a blind eye to China’s dissembling about its outbreak suggest that WHO failed to act on information it had from other sources and share this information with other member states.
For China, the outbreak’s domestic and international implications were so serious that the response, including the WHO’s involvement, had to reflect China’s position on sovereignty and its global stature.
Unsurprisingly, the official narratives from the Chinese Government and WHO about the outbreak response scrupulously reflected China’s political requirements and calculations.
The novel coronavirus caught many world leaders unprepared, despite consistent warnings that a global pandemic was inevitable. It has revealed the flaws in a global health architecture headed by the World Health Organisation, which had already been faulted for its response to the 2014 Ebola pandemic in West Africa.
What happened in this pandemic is a harbinger of what WHO will confront and have to navigate over the next decade.
The pandemic has also underscored the global health infrastructure’s inequalities, as poorer nations were outbid for critical medical equipment by developed countries in the early days of the pandemic’s spread. They continue to face similar obstacles when it comes to gaining access to vaccines. And to the extent that it has diverted attention and potentially funding from responses to other public health concerns, including food security and other infectious diseases, the death toll could be compounded.
For the post-Covid-19 reforms, global health experts, by and large, continue to strongly push for the expansive approach to WHO reform, Unfortunately, the balance-of-power politics will shape WHO’s future as much or more than the well-intentioned recommendations that post-pandemic reviews by experts will produce.
In this sense, Covid-19 has not changed the world as much as clarified how much the world has changed since the first decade of this century.