The World Health Organization must reform for its own sake

At present, the demanders for action at WHO, led by the US, are loud and appear to have an upper hand.

 |  4-minute read |   07-05-2020
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Covid-19 has affected more than three million persons worldwide with a death toll of nearly a quarter-million. The virus originated in China but has caused the greatest havoc in the West with the highest number of fatalities in the United States. Obviously, in the ‘war’ against Covid, geo-politics has assumed centre stage with even references to misuse of biology. The US is in election mode and the President cannot afford backfire from the spectre of massive deaths and a huge economic downturn due to the prolonged lockdown.

The need of the hour

Obviously, China is in the crosshairs but so is the World Health Organization (WHO) with its Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus from Ethiopia, accused of being in collusion with the Chinese and delaying the announcement of the pandemic. With the US, both as a government but also through its private entities, being by far its biggest financial contributor, the WHO must reform for its own sake and for human good and bind China, the challenger to the global order, in a compact with the US. And, developing countries must be mainstreamed in the running of the organisation.

main_tedros-adhanom-_050720103106.jpgDirector-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been accused of being in collusion with the Chinese and delaying the announcement of the pandemic. (Photo: Reuters)

Indeed, but for India having managed a tight lid on Covid-19 deaths, the global figure would have skyrocketed even further. WHO reform was, therefore, naturally underscored by PM Modi in a video call with G20 leaders on the Covid pandemic. India will be joining the Executive Board (EB) of the WHO in the coming weeks, taking over from Sri Lanka, whose three-year term is ending and also take over the Chair of the EB for a year as part of a rotational system in vogue at the WHO. Normally, the EB meets twice a year and, in the past, has hardly played any significant role other than in the election of the DG.

This time, however, things are different and this opportunity must be utilised to push reforms and enhance our place in the governance structure of the WHO. Of course, this will not be easy with demands to call out China, take a position on the continuation of the DG and help in the admission of Taiwan, which would be an anathema to China. As per extant rules, membership of the EB is held by a person technically qualified in health nominated by the country elected to serve on the Board. Given the scenario, at this time it is important that our nominee also have skillsets for navigating the pitfalls of international relations. In addition, he/she should be diplomatically backstopped. Furthermore, it would be useful if the Chair could remain positioned in Geneva through the year and be a hands-on player in the WHO processes as they unfold through this year and the next.

Pointers for future

In so far as reform of the WHO and reimaging the global health architecture post-Covid-19, four specific points are suggested.

The first is governance restructuring at the WHO underscoring its inter-governmental nature. The 34-member Executive Board, presently consisting of nominees from countries elected on geographical representation, should be replaced by a standing body, the (World) Health Council, consisting of Government representatives. Ideally, the Council should not be more than 20 countries balancing regional representation and those with the greatest capacities in the area of health, including from the developing world. It should provide executive oversight and instruct action at WHO.

Equally important is legislative action. A legally binding mechanism is required on early notification of virus or pandemic type outbreaks; this must go well beyond the International Health Regulations and could be through a global Convention enforced by the WHO. At the same time, mechanisms should be established within the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention for legally binding bio-surveillance, verification and compliance so that the possibility of misuse of biology is legally hindered through a global compact.

Pandemics carry global dangers and it is important that we come together in research and development on virus and vaccine development no matter that commercial considerations have precluded this from happening till now. The laboratories of the World Bank-financed Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) which have done yeoman service in food security provide an excellent template.

And finally, the various provisions under the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement should be fortified to ensure that developing countries have affordable access to anti-dotes developed for pandemics.

Objective approach

At present, the demanders for action at WHO, led by the US, are loud and appear to have the upper hand. President Trump has withheld US funding for the WHO and shrill criticism of the DG begets questions on the tenability of his position.

Key engagements on reform must, of course, start with the US but also with the African countries given the nationality of the DG and sensitivities of the countries in the region that nominated him. Though changing the General in the middle of a war cannot be a preferred strategy, it must be done if required. As far as China is concerned, no matter whether the virus emanated from a laboratory or a wet market, they are unlikely to have preferred that the announcement of their coming of age in the quest for global hegemony was done by a pandemic.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Lessons to be learnt as India battles the Covid-19 challenge

Writer

Manjeev Singh Puri Manjeev Singh Puri @ambmanjeevpuri

The writer is is former Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN and former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, European Union, Belgium & Luxembourg

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