whos-response-towards-covid-19-under-review-summary

Context: India has taken charge of the Executive Board of WHO at a pivotal moment, when the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More about the news:

  • India became the chair of the World Health Organization Executive Board at its 147th session
  • It is also a time when the WHO itself has become a battleground of global politics. 
  • Recently the WHO invited the world’s attention as it convened and over 60 countries, including India, asked for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO’s response to Covid-19.
  • The final resolution in the World Health Assembly has been co-sponsored by 122 countries including India, which was adopted by consensus without a vote. 

Details of the resolution

  • It was brought forward by the European Union (EU) and moved by Australia on behalf of more than 100 countries including India, Australia, and Japan.
  • It does not mention China. However, the draft says the Director-General of the WHO should continue to work closely with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and countries as part of the One-Health Approach to identify
    • the zoonotic source of the virus 
    • the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts
    • efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions, which will enable targeted interventions and a research agenda to reduce the risk of similar events.
  • The move will also provide guidance on how to prevent COVID-19  infection in animals and humans and prevent the establishment of new zoonotic reservoirs, as well as to reduce further risks of emergence and transmission of zoonotic diseases.
  • The resolution further states to Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with the Member States, 
    • A stepwise process of impartial, independent, and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms.
    • To review the experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to the current health crisis.
  • While the resolution has been endorsed at the WHA, it remains to be seen how the probe will be carried out and to what degree of independence. However, the timeline of the probe is also not clear.

Significance of the WHO resolution in international politics

  • China’s general resistance to any criticism:
    • Apart from the WHO’s approach in not confronting the Chinese leadership over Covid-19, China’s general resistance to any external criticism and action has been at the center of the debate.
    • China which views itself as a natural successor to the global leadership role, has been riled at the international community’s calls for “transparency and accountability”.
  • Upcoming election in US
    • US administration has seized this opportunity to blame China for the pandemic, as it faces an election year
  • An unprecedented coalition of those asking for accountability
    • From Australia to Europe, India to Japan & South Korea many of these countries who have high stakes in their bilateral relations with China, have all come out to question China. 
  • Therefore what a global initiative like Belt and Road Initiative could not do get more and more countries to question China’s ambitious initiative the COVID-19 pandemic has done.

Background of criticism of WHO

  • WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been under criticism for not acting on time in response to COVID-19.
  • WHO has also been accused by US President of being a “puppet of China” 
    • The US President has also threatened to permanently cut funding to the WHO.
      • At present, the US is the WHO’s biggest contributor and makes up over 14.67 percent of the total funding, at $553.1 million.
    • The US also says that China continues to undermine the International Health Regulations by refusing to share accurate and timely data, viral samples and isolates.
  • It is being said that The WHO could have questioned China’s handling of the outbreak in Wuhan so that the WHO could better prepare the world for the dangerous disease, but has been criticized for failing to act decisively.
  • It is also being criticized that the WHO did not utilize the International Health Regulations (IHR) in a proper manner.

WHO’s response to earlier global outbreaks

  • SARS outbreak in 2003:
    • Then WHO Director-General Gro Brundtland had taken on China over the outbreak and, without the nod of the countries concerned.
    • The WHO had issued warnings against travel to SARS-affected regions
    • Then the WHO Director-General had acted without authority to take these steps.
    • In adopting the IHR in the aftermath of SARS, WHO member states gave WHO unprecedented authority vis-à-vis state sovereignty and expanded the need for WHO’s scientific, medical, and public health capabilities.
  • H1N1 influenza
    • After the IHR guidelines came into play in 2007, the H1N1 influenza spread around the world in 2009.
    • Then WHO Director-General Margaret Chan declared the world’s first public health emergency of international concern.
    • WHO had issued recommendations that advised against trade and travel measures. This was seen as a success of the IHR.
  • Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014
    • It was a disaster for WHO and the IHR. WHO’s response was so bad that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon created an ad hoc emergency response effort. 
    • The WHO Director-General had failed to act on information that WHO had received from non-governmental sources, did not challenge governments that wanted to keep the outbreak quiet.
    • The WHO only declared a public health emergency of international concern after the epidemic was already a crisis.
  • Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
    • The next major crisis after this was an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that started in late 2018. 
    • The WHO’s response to this outbreak demonstrated that it had re-invigorated its functional capacities.

About International Health Regulations (2005)

  • It represents an agreement between 196 countries including all WHO Member States to work together for global health security.
  • Through IHR, countries have agreed to build their capacities to detect, assess, and report public health events. 
  • WHO plays the coordinating role in IHR and, together with its partners, helps countries to build capacities.
  • IHR also includes specific measures at ports, airports and ground crossings to limit the spread of health risks to neighboring countries and to prevent unwarranted travel and trade restrictions so that traffic and trade disruption is kept to a minimum.
  • The IHR empowers the WHO to take actions that can challenge how governments exercise sovereignty. 
  • The IHR authorizes the 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. 
  • The IHR also grants the WHO Director-General the power to declare a public health emergency of international concern, even if the country experiencing the outbreak objects.

Stance taken by China

  • Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been increasing pressure on China, which so far has opposed suggestions for inquiry into the origins of the virus. 
  • China has announced a $2 billion donation to the United Nations, which is over twice the amount the US contributed before the US President cut off funding. 
  • China has also offered to set up hospitals and health infrastructure in Africa.
  • China says that it supports” the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response towards Covid-19 after it was brought under control.
  • However The US administration sees China’s announcement as a way to escape scrutiny over its alleged role in delaying providing information about the disease outbreak.

Significance for India

  • India has been long advocating for reforms of the WHO along with other international organizations.
  • Similar demand has been articulated by the Prime Minister recently during the virtual G-20 summit in March this year.
  • Also India is likely to hold the post at the Executive Board of WHO for the next three years. 
  • The timing of India’s appointment is crucial, given the worldwide debate on the role of the WHO during the pandemic, and criticism of the current WHO Director-General.
  • India is also faced with a major choice on whether to support a U.S. move to reinstate Taiwan’s observer status at the World Health Assembly (WHA) or to support China’s opposition to it.

What should be the priority areas for India?

  • Beyond the immediate debates, India must look at the deeper issues that have hobbled the WHO.
  • Firstly India needs to develop new international norms that will increase the obligations of states and the powers of the WHO in facilitating early detection and notification of pandemics. 
    • This will involve finding ways to bridge the contested notions of state sovereignty and collective security.
  • Attention towards the question of funding
    • Over the decades, the WHO has become ever more reliant on voluntary contributions from governments and corporations rather than assessed contributions from the member states. 
    • This is going to leave the WHO rather vulnerable to pressures.
    • India needs to develop a proper mechanism so that the vulnerability of the WHO for funding can be reduced.
  • Attention towards a few but important topics
    • The WHO’s initial successes came when it focused on a few objectives like combating malaria and the elimination of smallpox
    • A limited agenda might also make the WHO a more effective organization.
  • Deepening cooperation between the members:
    • Sustained engagement with China is as important for India as deeper cooperation with the US and the “Quad plus” nations.
      • The quadrilateral formation includes Japan, India, United States and Australia
      • “Plus” partners have included the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, France, and Sri Lanka. 
    • Also it is equally important to have a more intensive engagement with the non-aligned nations in promoting a new global regime on preventing and managing pandemics.
  • India must use this opportunity to further its place in the global high table. The country has a unique opportunity to play a role in the WHO.
  • As India takes the leadership role of the WHO Executive Board, much will depend on how it is able to navigate global politics over the next three years. And, on how it handles its own disease trajectory in a transparent manner.

India at the WHO

  • India became a party to the WHO Constitution on 12 January 1948. 
  • The first session of the South East Asia Regional Committee was held in October 1948 in the office of the Indian Minister of Health and was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.
  • The first Regional Director for South-East Asia was an Indian, Dr. Chandra Mani, who served between 1948-1968. 
  • Currently, the post has again been occupied by an Indian appointee, Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, who has been in office since 2014.
  • Since 2019, Dr Soumya Swaminathan has been the WHO’s Chief Scientist.

 

About WHO

  • WHO was set up on April 7, 1948 after its constitution was signed by 61 countries on July 22, 1946 at the first meeting of the World Health Assembly. 
    • The Geneva-headquartered organization has six regional offices and 194 members currently.
  • It is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. 
  • Its primary role is to direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations system.

Its main areas of work are health systems; health through the life-course; noncommunicable and communicable diseases; preparedness, surveillance and response; and corporate services.

WHO’s functions are

  • To act as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work; 
  • To establish and maintain effective collaboration with the United Nations, specialized agencies, governmental health administrations, professional groups and such other organizations as may be deemed appropriate; 
  • To assist Governments, upon request, in strengthening health services; 
  • To furnish appropriate technical assistance and, in emergencies, necessary aid upon the request or acceptance of Governments; 

Membership:

  • Members of the United Nations may become Members of the Organization by signing or otherwise accepting WHO’s Constitution in accordance with the provisions of Chapter XIX and in accordance with their constitutional processes.
  • Territories or groups of territories which are not responsible for the conduct of their international relations may be admitted as Associate Members by the Health Assembly.

The World Health Organization is governed by two decision-making bodies: the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board. Details of both have been provided below:

The WHO Executive Board

Composition

The Executive Board is composed of 34 members technically qualified in the field of health each designated by a Member State that has been elected to serve by the World Health Assembly.

Tenure

The members are being elected for three-year terms. 

Chairman

The Executive Board chairman’s post is held by rotation for one year by each of the WHO’s six regional groups: 

  • These regional groups are African Region, Region of the Americas, South-East Asia Region, European Region, Eastern Mediterranean Region, and the Western Pacific Region.

Functions

  • To give effect to the decisions and policies of the Health Assembly, to advise it and generally to facilitate its work. 
  • The Executive Board and the Health Assembly create a forum for debate on health issues and for addressing concerns raised by Member States.

Other details

Both the Executive Board and the Health Assembly produce three kinds of documents 

  • Resolutions and Decisions passed by the two bodies, 
  • Official Records as published in WHO Official publications
  • Documents that are presented “in session” of the two bodies.

 

The WHO Health Assembly

Composition

It is attended by delegations from all WHO Member States and focuses on a specific health agenda prepared by the Executive Board. 

Functions

The main functions of the World Health Assembly are to 

  • determine the policies of the Organization, 
  • appoint the Director-General, 
  • supervise financial policies, and review and 
  • approve the proposed program budget. 

Other details

  • The Health Assembly is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • WHO is headed by the Director-General, who is appointed by the Health Assembly on the nomination of the Executive Board.

73rd World Health Assembly

  • The 73rd WHA is the first-ever virtual health assembly.
  • It is also considered as the most important one ever; because the unprecedented threat of COVID-19 pandemic continues to kill thousands of people and also causing a deep global recession.

Highlights of India’s speech

  • India is playing a key role in fostering bilateral and regional partnerships. 
  • India has supplied essential medicines to 123 nations as an expression of solidarity.
  • India reiterated that the role of Therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines for the whole world is the only way out of this pandemic. 
  • Global collaboration is paramount. Governments, industry, and philanthropy must pool resources to pay for the risk, the research, manufacturing, and distribution, but with the condition that the rewards should be available to everyone, regardless of where they have been developed.