Who is WHO?
That’s the existential question which is now at the epicenter of this Covid fight. Notwithstanding Trump’s rhetoric, really, most of us are left wondering what exactly is the role of WHO? It announced that the Covid was a pandemic much after the whole world already knew and was experiencing it. Time and again, it has always been behind the curve; like the police always arriving after the dacoits had plundered and scooted, WHO seems to have lost its relevance completely.
The actual mandate of WHO, to summarise, is to coordinate international health work; assist governments to strengthen health services; provide technical assistance; provide epidemiological and statistical services; promote better health; eradicate disease; and propose regulations to improve health. We cannot help but look around in bewilderment, wondering what happened to WHO?
After the decisive way in which it acted when SARS first broke out in 2003, which was also a pandemic, was probably the last time it truly did its job. At that time, SARS had already reached 26 countries and the diseases was controlled not through vaccines or medicines; it was WHO which went beyond its authority and issued travel warnings, got into modes of tracking, testing and isolating. It ran a mammoth information gathering operation spread across countries. But even at the end of all this, after the new set of guidelines were worked out in 2005, no power as such was ever given to WHO. It is neither a NATO nor a security council.
Despite no teeth, what really broke down WHO was funding and politics. This weakened the decision-making ability of WHO consistently and we could see how the WHO floundered in 2009 when H1N1 reached some 200 countries. That time too, WHO declared it was a pandemic. Some 18,200 people died but because it was much lesser than expected, WHO came under a lot of flak and European politicians demanded inquiries as to whether the WHO had mistakenly rung the alarm.
This huge backlash led the WHO to become too tentative about calling for action in the future. There was also the 2008 crash and that led to financial cuts; WHO’s funding gap stood at nearly $300m in 2012 wherein entire offices were shut, including a team of social scientists working on pandemic response. And that is why when the Ebola crisis broke out in 2014, WHO was over cautious and financially, crippled. From there on, the voices questioning the very existence of WHO only started getting louder.
The current pandemic is probably the biggest in the life of WHO and with no real powers, it has come forth like a huge, old elephant, tethering in the wild forest, not knowing what to do. The Chinese concealed information, told the WHO about the corona much later and also refused the WHO’s request to send a team of scientific observers to Hubei province. Despite this, WHO did not come out and call out on China. Worse still, Tedros, the current chief of WHO instead had a closed door meet with President Xi and to the rage of others, went on to praise China for its efforts to contain the disease. Maybe his soft pedaling helped because China allowed WHO’s scientists inside Wuhan but that was only in Feb; by then it was too late.
Now at the insistence of Australia, yesterday more than 100 nations signed onto a resolution calling for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. China has said that it is willing to cooperate but only after the pandemic is over. Any hopes of getting an independent investigation was be ruled out – China also, in the same breath pledged $2 billion over two years to WHO.
The WHO is now caught very badly in the ugly spat between America and China. Trump halted around $400 million funding to WHO accusing its failure to investigate China's covid outbreak promptly, calling it "China-centric".
But is that really true? WHO is virtually ruled by Americans from the National Institutes of Health, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, and many others. The biggest factor - America is the biggest financial contributor to the agency by far.
In this entire tu-tu-main-main, instead of helping countries fight this huge health crisis, WHO is engaged in fighting geopolitical battles. Countries also are not looking for any global support, it is now each country to his own. So while WHO might be a global organization set up to help countries fight pandemics through international coordination, the reality is that today each country is fighting a national battle and that once again makes one wonder about the role of WHO.