The World Health Organisation (WHO) is grappling with its greatest crisis, faced with criticism over its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic and with a funding cut from the United States.
Had global governance been working as effectively as it should have, the world have responded earlier and collectively. That it did not is an indictment, not so much of the WHO alone but of the member states that demand it is beholden to them, says Shashi Tharoor , a former Under Secretary General of the United Nations who spent three decades at the UN.
Tharoor, who is currently Congress Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, is also a former Minister of State of External Affairs. Edited excerpts:
The WHO faced some criticism over its handling of the Ebola outbreak. In this instance, it is of a much higher magnitude. How unprecedented is the current challenge facing the WHO?
By and large, the consensus was the Ebola response was largely successful. There were deaths but illness was contained to the region where it originated. Here you have an unprecedented challenge. The WHO was established in 1948 and there hasn’t been a worldwide pandemic with this kind of devastation that has come across its path. Something like this is calamitously challenging for the WHO. And then you have the decision of the United States [on April 15] to withhold funding at this peak time. The U.S. contributes something like 15 per cent of the WHO budget. That is a pretty substantial sum of money that is going to disappear from the WHO’s kitty. All of that I think adds to the challenges it is facing.
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What is your view of the U.S. criticism that the WHO response was slow off the mark? Is this more about President Trump trying to scapegoat the WHO, or is this valid, with a kernel of truth?
I really think Mr. Trump is honestly trying to find a scapegoat for his own administration failing in preparing the U.S. sooner for what has turned out to be the biggest public health emergency they have ever had. The fact is, if you look at what the WHO did or didn’t do, one can certainly accept the charge that they were to willing to give China a free pass at the beginning of the crisis. They made some wrong calls on the coronavirus, for example the statement on January 14 doubting human-to-human transmission which was at least three weeks out of date. And the Americans, of course, are quite bugged they continue blocking participation by Taiwan.
Honestly, I don’t think it’s easy to blame the WHO for it. One of the institutional challenges for any UN body is that it tends to be beholden to its most powerful member states. The UN itself in many ways reflects the dominance of certain countries, particularly of the Security Council. That is simply the way in which an organisation of member states is structured. We are mirror of the world. We reflect the inequalities and power structure in the globe itself. So for any institution to just openly start doubting or questioning assurances given by a powerful member state would be a challenge at the best of times.
I am not saying the WHO covered itself in glory in two issues particularly, its early comfort levels with Chinese actions and some of their statements before they finally on March 11 declared a pandemic. Their statements in January were perhaps a little weak. By the end of January, they began to get a little more urgent in warnings, and all they said in February was pretty reasonable. They were obviously deferential to a powerful member state. I am afraid the problem is if this was something that started in the U.S., they would have probably been deferential to the U.S. also. The difference is the U.S. being a democracy with a free press, they would have not found it easy to suppress the kind of details that are only now emerging from China. It is shocking that [on April 17] China increased the death toll in Wuhan by 50 per cent because it was getting impossible to conceal the fact that their numbers were lies. Now the truth is if you have to blame somebody, you have to blame Beijing for having done the wrong thing, tried to supress the news, tried to conceal information, and taken no effective steps in the beginning to prevent the virus from spreading, and then misled the WHO, rather than blame the WHO principally for merely mirroring what the Chinese were saying.
Is it the case that WHO and most UN agencies are to a high degree reliant on the information they receive from member states?
There were two things. First, the WHO didn’t send experts to Wuhan at the very beginning. As soon as the first news was announced by China on December 31, there should have been a WHO delegation of experts on the plane to get an independent view. That wasn’t there so they were only relying on the Chinese view. That is something you can blame the WHO for. The second thing is for a few weeks they continued to take a very relaxed line, relaying the Chinese assurances, frankly as if they didn’t need to be questioned independently.
We have a constitutional problem with all UN agencies that the head of the agency who is elected after all with support of powerful member states, does not enjoy the independence and autonomy that should come with a position of that stature. If we were, for example, to adopt a policy of a single non-renewable term for maybe six or seven years, rather than two terms of five which is normal practice, then you might actually give a leader authority to take certain independent actions.
Nonetheless, don’t forget the UN is not larger or more powerful than its member states. Had the WHO wanted to send a team and for whatever reason China refused to give a visa, then they couldn’t have gone. The UN system is not a supra-national body. It is an international body and it concerns nation states who are sovereign. Just as Israel denied a UN team access to occupied territories, India has refused permission to some UN observers to go to Kashmir and so on, countries have the right to do that. We can say the WHO should have at least proposed it, and the world would have drawn conclusions if China rejected a visa. But the WHO was not taking enough initiative initially. I would still say the principal fault is with Beijing and not the WHO, which is still a body that is dependent on member states.
Some reports have said in the initial stages the WHO did want to send a team to Wuhan. Is there something different they could have done to make it happen? Some have drawn a comparison with how during the SARS epidemic, then Director General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland was a lot more vocal. Could her successor, Dr. Tedros, who is facing so much criticism, used more sticks and less carrots?
It is fair to say that Dr Brundtland, who was not elected with Chinese support, had a different attitude to this than Dr Tedros, who was very much a candidate backed not just by China, but by India too and many other developing countries. Dr Brundtland, having been a former prime minister and a world leader with some heft, had a certain stature which gave her independence. And in any case, she wasn’t interested in seeking re-election after SARS. So it is a difficult comparison to make with a first-term Director General who is from the developing world. You can say Dr Tedros was unduly deferential to one of his most powerful member states. Arguably in any list of the top two or three most powerful, influential states in the WHO, China would figure.
India is a member of every UN body and every country knows how these bodies work. The governments of the world actually want UN agencies to be beholden to governments, for the most part. When they fail to assert enough independence and autonomy, the same governments start making these agencies a scapegoat. When I was at the UN, my then boss [Secretary General] Kofi Annan would often jokingly say about the initials SG by which we used to call him, ‘I know what that stands for – scapegoat!’. And that was really what often happened.
In my book ‘The New World Disorder’ that I co-authored with Samir Saran, we argued that international institutions are indeed waning in legitimacy because they suffer from politicisation, manipulation, lack of independent leadership, lack of representation and purpose. I am sorry to say seeing this happening, and also seeing another trend we highlighted, the resurgence of nationalisms sweeping the world, has been pretty dismaying.
Had global governance been working as effectively as it should have, the world would have identified the coronavirus as soon as it emerged, the WHO would have sounded a global alarm early about its dangers, and the world would have collectively identified and publicised the best practices that should have been adopted by all countries to prevent and limit the spread. That this did not happen is a damning indictment not so much of the WHO alone, but of all our sovereign states and of the state of our new world disorder. I certainly hope that one of the lessons we learn from this setback is when the pandemic is over, we have to sit down and say, how can we strengthen international systems and institutions, and reform them as radically as necessary, in order to forestall another global tragedy of this magnitude.
On the one hand, we are seeing countries turning inward. On the other, the pandemic is also bringing an awareness of the limitations of how global institutions are functioning. Faced with these two somewhat opposing impulses, which way will we go?
The signs are indeed for a resurgence of national sovereignty. We are seeing more and more ethno-nationalism, populism, and a wave of nationalism that many countries are riding, certainly including Xi Jinping’s China, Putin’s Russia, Trump’s America, Modi’s India, and Brexit Britain, in addition to many European countries facing the same thing. This suggests we will actually go in the wrong direction and likely throw up more barriers and create more nationalist, defiant sovereignties. I believe that is the wrong way to go. I genuinely believe globalisation cannot be completely unrolled and that India must play a role in defying this impulse of closing countries off to the international community. We need to create a new ethic and resolve for global governance.
We have to recognize if the WHO had limitations, these are limitations that governments have imposed upon it. If the world has to draw from this a conclusion that we actually need institutions of greater independence in all our collective interest then maybe we can reform these institutions, to give them that independence. In particular, if we elect WHO heads who are allowed to challenge countries, for example as a matter of authority they can go and see for themselves independently if the assurances they are getting from governments are valid or not. All of these things require a certain dilution of a national government’s prerogative and that’s something governments have proven reluctant to do. I hope a country like India will be a sane voice for this. Even Brexit Britain has announced it will give an additional 65 million Pounds to the WHO because of the U.S. pulling out, which I thought was a fine gesture. We are seeing some countries are rallying around. The Chinese, inevitably, had hinted they too will increase funding partly to compensate for America, but the Chinese unfortunately seem to demand others pay a price for this generosity with silence for Chinese misdemeanours. So Pakistan remains quiet on the Uighur Muslims being mistreated because of $65 billion that China is pouring into Pakistan under the Belt and Road Initiative. I am sure you will not find Italy and Spain saying anything nasty about China with all the medical support, PPE equipment they are receiving. These are realities of geopolitics we simply cannot overlook.
What are some tangible reforms that India should push for at the WHO?
I think strengthening the autonomy of these institutions is important and that’s how independence of heads of institutions, and by extension of the institution itself, becomes a key factor. The second is certainly preparation to cede a certain authority, that yes a government may provide its own views to the WHO, but if the WHO independently decides it wants to verify things for itself, governments as a price of being a member of the WHO should not have the authority to deny a visa or travel permission. I have heard the story you mentioned that China did block a WHO delegation from visiting Wuhan in the first weeks, and Dr Tedros had to fly to Beijing to negotiate access. At the same time, it is also true the WHO took the Chinese position that travel restrictions are ineffective and need not be imposed at a time when the only restrictions would have been against China, which would have been the victim of such a restriction. Governments have to show a greater degree of statesmanship if we are going to get these organisations to be effective in a way that no organisation that depends on member states can be expected to be, beyond a point.