Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked why it has been “difficult for humans to unite and fight a common enemy that is killing people indiscriminately?”.
He warned: “The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself. Rather, it is the lack of leadership and solidarity at the global and national levels… we cannot defeat this pandemic as a divided world”, highlighting inter-governmental conflicts over the pandemic and its containment.
Solidarity desperately needed
With more than 600,000 acknowledged deaths, almost 13 million are believed to have been infected by Covid-19 in mid-July. In less than half a year, every country had been affected by the pandemic, designated by the WHO as a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC) on 30th January.
Richard Horton, editor of the prestigious Lancet medical journal, has urged the United Nations to convene an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to make “appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures”.
A “meeting under the auspices of the UN is the only means available to construct a global response to this pandemic”. Wondering “why such a global gathering has not yet taken place”, he pleaded, “It must take place. And soon”.
Covid-19 has been devastating, not only because of its heavy toll on human life, but also because of its adverse impacts on livelihoods, especially for much of the ‘precariat’, particularly in the most vulnerable developing countries.
The pandemic’s indirect impacts are not well understood as national health systems, already undermined by years of under-investment and creeping privatization, struggle to cope.
Other preventable deaths are rising as less people get medical attention due to loss of livelihoods and health coverage. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has estimated an additional 1·44 million deaths from the three killer diseases.
Horton warns, “Global health has entered a period of rapid reversal…Yet no plan is in place, or even being proposed, to address this global regression in human health”. For him, “this pandemic deserves historically unrivalled global political leadership. And yet all we have is silence”. He asks, “How have we fallen so low?”.
WHO “left out to dry”
Helen Clark, former New Zealand Prime Minister and co-chair of the independent review, lamented that the WHO has been undermined by lack of support from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the G20, observing, “toxic geopolitics have stopped it doing anything useful at all”.
On 7th July, the United States gave the required one year’s notice to the UN that it would withdraw from the WHO. With the world’s largest economy, US withdrawal will greatly weaken WHO finances when it is needed more than ever.
The US has not provided meaningful world leadership in recent years, but has instead increasingly undermined the multilateral order it was the primary architect of. Yet, the current campaign against the WHO is unprecedented, and is widely believed to be connected to political, economic and diplomatic mobilization to check China’s rise.
In the current context, US withdrawal is expected to greatly undermine multilateral cooperation more broadly. sides endangering the lives and health of billions worldwide, it will undermine multilateralism more generally, not only in the UN system, but even at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
WHO could have done better
Undoubtedly, the WHO’s role in the pandemic could have been better, although how so depends on one’s perspective. Despite resource constraints and member-imposed regulations and protocols, it has done well, designating the outbreak a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ (PHEIC) on 30th January.
Then, there were only 7,818 confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission, mostly in China, and 82 cases in 18 countries outside China. The WHO advised all countries to “be ready to contain any introduction of the virus and its spread through active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing, and prevention”.
Yet, mistakes were undoubtedly made, e.g., discouraging the use of face masks, ostensibly to ensure adequate protective personal equipment for medical personnel and other ‘frontline workers’.
But there is no conclusive evidence, except for uncorroborated claims by the anti-China Japanese and Taiwanese authorities, greatly amplified by the media in India, Australia and the US, of the WHO being controlled by and biased towards China.
Refusing to prepare
The first WHO fact-finding mission to China emphasized the success of prompt, early precautionary measures, including testing, tracing, isolation and treatment. Contagion could still have been contained by adopting WHO recommended measures.
Yet, except for a handful of East Asian countries and Kerala state, in southwest India, much of the rest of the world, including most who could afford more adequate precautionary measures, did little to contain the contagion until they had little choice but to impose ‘stay in shelter’ lockdown measures.
When the WHO declared Covid-19 a “pandemic” on 11th March, there were over 118,000 confirmed cases and 4,291 deaths in 114 countries, with more than 90% of cases in four countries: China, Iran, Italy and South Korea.
By then, new infections were already declining rapidly in China and South Korea, while 81 countries reported no cases, and 57 had ten cases or less. Yet, inaction persisted, even justified in terms of developing ‘herd immunity’.
To be sure, many rich countries had been weakening the WHO for decades before the Covid-19 pandemic. Reliable long-term mandatory funding had fallen from 62% of its budget in 1970-71 to 18% in 2017.
As Stewart Patrick noted, “much of the blame can be laid at the feet of member states, which have saddled the WHO with an ever-expanding mission set reflecting their individual priorities, while providing it with a modest operating budget… smaller than that of some big city U.S. hospitals.
“Compounding these difficulties, national governments have repeatedly proved resistant to accepting WHO guidance or fulfilling their international legal obligations during declared public health emergencies”.
Security Council must act
In 2014, the UNSC responded promptly to the Ebola crisis, declaring the virus a threat to peace and security, thus ‘legally obliging’ Member States to do whatever they can to check the threat.
Despite its much greater morbidity and mortality impacts worldwide, the UNSC took half a year to back the UN Secretary-General’s global ceasefire appeal following the Covid-19 outbreak.
Covid-19 is arguably the greatest threat to peace and security since the Second World War. Now that the UNSC is finally acting, only seven of the 15-member Council can convene UN Member States for an emergency UNGA special session to do the right thing.