COVID-19 has infected more than 19 million people, claimed over 0.7 million lives and devastated economies. As the pandemic transcends geopolitical boundaries, one is forced to ruminate on a counterfactual with a series of timely global health interventions by the World Health Organization (WHO) duly supported by governments. An early warning and timely policy measures by the WHO would have forewarned countries and set their preparatory efforts in motion for mounting a decisive response strategy.
With regional offices in six geographical regions and country offices across 150 countries, the WHO was expected to play the dual role of a think tank and oversee global responses to public health emergencies. It was reported that the earliest COVID-19 positive case in China was reported in November, but China informed the WHO about the disease only in January. With the WHO country representative stationed in Beijing, it is unlikely that widespread transmission went unnoticed.
Then, even though confirmed cases were reported from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the U.S. in January, the WHO continued to downplay the severity of the virus. It took some inexplicable decisions and actions such as declaring the pandemic as a public health emergency of international concern only on January 30 and ignoring Taiwan’s hints of human-to-human transmission and requests on sharing “relevant information”. Further, the WHO went on to praise China’s response to the pandemic.
WHO was severely criticised for its poor handling of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 as well. Incontrovertibly, the relevance of the health agency has been fading. The WHO has been reduced to a coordinating body, beholden to the interests of rich member states. Its functional efficiency has been disadvantaged with organisational lethargy, absence of decisive leadership, bureaucratic indolence, underfunded programmes, and inability to evolve to meet the needs of the 21st century.
Director General Tedros Adhanom has been criticised for his leadership abilities during this pandemic. In contrast, Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Director General of the WHO (1998-2003), spearheaded the global health response with a host of significant policy decisions. She focused on projecting WHO as one entity and publicly reproached the Chinese leadership for its response to the 2003 SARS pandemic. The timely containment of SARS despite an unfavourable response from China bears the stamp of her decisive leadership.
Relying on rich member states
WHO is funded through assessed contributions made by the member states and voluntary contributions from member states and private donors. While assessed contributions can be spent as per the organisation’s priorities approved at the World Health Assembly, the irregular voluntary contributions are allocated in consultation with the donors. While voluntary contributions accounted for nearly 80% of the budget in 2018-19, assessed contributions merely constituted 17% of the total budgetary support. The challenges owing to constrained finances encumber autonomy in decision-making by favouring a donor-driven agenda.
While the WHO has failed in arresting the pandemic, governments across the globe are equally responsible for their inept handling and ill-preparedness. However, that does not vindicate WHO’s tardiness in handling the crisis. Many countries, especially in Africa and Asia, rely predominantly on the WHO for enforcing policy decisions governing public health. Political leanings and financial compulsions of WHO cannot betray that trust. The burden of their expectations must weigh heavily on every policy decision taken by the global health agency, for when the WHO fails, many innocent lives are lost.
Meenakshi Sharma is a development consultant