Who? What? Where? The World Health Organisation and COVID-19.


By Lara Bodger / 8 May 2020

The current coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented global catastrophe, and staying on track of news updates can feel overwhelming when announcements often include increasing global deaths and rising transmission rates.

Thankfully, there has also been positive progress from countries who acted swiftly to contain the virus, such as New Zealand, who have practically eliminated new transmissions and Taiwan, who have had a relatively low level of infections. There's also the likelihood of a vaccination being developed, with optimistic forecasts estimating that it could be available as soon as September.

Amongst the coverage of all things coronavirus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been a major topic of discussion, naturally due to their position as the preeminent global health body but also in light of the news that Trump has withdrawn US funding. Trump claims that the WHO has mismanaged the virus by showing bias towards China and through failing to investigate the initial reports of the outbreak fully. We are all painfully aware of Trump's many misstatements on COVID-19, or any given subject, such as his recent claims that coronavirus came from a Chinese laboratory or that injecting disinfectant could be a possible cure. Yet it is not only Trump criticising the WHO's response, with voices in the media and government officials amongst others suggesting that the organisation failed to identify fast enough that the virus could be spread via human-to-human transmission (Beijing initially claimed there was no risk of this) and consequently declared a public health emergency too late. The timeline of the coronavirus began in December when health authorities in Wuhan announced that they were treating multiple cases of an unknown virus. On the 30th of January, WHO declared coronavirus a global public health emergency, and by the 11th of March, it became a global pandemic. The WHO's Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, claims that these announcements gave leaders enough time to respond adequately. But what do we know about the WHO's response to the pandemic, and what has their historic role been concerning global health? 

The WHO was formed in 1948, as a specialised branch of the United Nations. The organisation has offices in 150 countries, and a generalised mandate to promote 'better health for everyone, everywhere', providing expert medical advice and guidelines on all things public health, for world leaders to implement within their country context. The WHO is mainly funded through contributions from member countries, alongside NGOs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since its creation, the WHO's reputation has varied, depending on their responses to various health emergencies. In 2003, the SARS outbreak was considered to have been successfully contained within Asia where it originated, after the WHO issued guidance and restricted travel, and national governments acted swiftly. During the Ebola crisis, in which new cases continue to be declared, the WHO was widely perceived to have failed to act quickly enough to state the outbreak as a public health emergency, and even admitted to their mishandling of the crisis. 

What can we make of the WHO's response to COVID-19 so far?

The organisation has provided technical guidance on issues from mass gatherings, to how health workers can protect themselves. They have sent experts to advise governments, provided medical equipment for developing countries and are currently leading global research into a possible vaccination and treatments. However, the organisation's effectiveness is greatly hampered by its inability to force countries to do anything that they don't want to do.

For instance, the WHO was unable to gain access for experts to visit China for three weeks after the initial declaration of an unknown virus, by which point the threat had greatly increased. This occurred in a context where Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Beijing's efforts in combating the virus, despite Chinese whistleblowers reporting on the initial coverup in Wuhan. This can be put down to a fear of losing funding from China if they had criticised Beijing's response, but by not criticising China, the WHO has lost funding from their biggest donor, the US.

The organisation walks a difficult diplomatic tightrope, resulting in their power being limited to the ability to influence governments. The varying heed to which world leaders have followed official guidelines demonstrates this, such as in Brazil, where Bolsonaro opposes not only the WHO's guidelines but also his own countries localised lockdown measures. Instead of a united front against the pandemic, countries have also been quick to act in their own interest. The EU recently issued an apology to Italy for failing to help at the beginning of the crisis.

On the other hand, the various failings of world leaders in dealing with this pandemic suggests that the world still needs global leadership to at least nudge countries away from acting selfishly. In a world of Trump and Bolsonaro's, we need the WHO to publicise the latest scientific research on such issues, to provide an antibody to the misinformation they spout. The withdrawal of US funding will only negatively impact global health, by limiting the ability of the WHO to provide for the many countries who currently have insufficient resources to fight the pandemic.  

Words by
lara bodger

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