The World Health Organisation (WHO) came into being in 1948. Founded on the principle that ‘The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being’, it is a symbol of international resolve to achieve universal healthcare for all. But, 72 years on, what kind of shape is it in, and how has it matched up to the challenge of COVID-19?
The WHO has more than a few notches on its belt. It is a repository of expertise and good practice guidelines, disseminating essential hospital equipment lists, clinical practices and knowledge, information about diseases, and extensively funding and collating research. It provides aid in national and international medical emergencies, and technical assistance to aid the development of public health systems in member states. The eradication of smallpox, a disease that plagued humanity for 3000 years, claiming the lives of pharaohs, emperors and millions of others, was accomplished under the auspices of the WHO. Stocks of vaccines have been made available internationally, against anything from polio to meningitis. In the present day, 5 million children in Yemen have been vaccinated against measles and polio. 3.5 million have been vaccinated against Yellow Fever in Brazil. Ambulances have been supplied to Iraq and mental health services set up in Syria. They have supported war-ravaged South Sudan in its effort to construct community-based health services. There is plenty for the WHO to be proud of.
Yet in recent years, the WHO has come under criticism. Its response to the Ebola outbreak was criticised for its lack of speed, with some experts even calling for the organisation to be dissolved, with one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals dubbing it ‘bruised and apologetic’. During the current pandemic, President Trump has begun the process of withdrawing the United States from the WHO, citing:
- An apparent pro-China bias.
- Belated and inaccurate information about the virus at the start of the outbreak.
- That the WHO discouraged the US from adopting travel restrictions.
The claim that information about the virus was inaccurate probably refers to the period in mid-January earlier this year, when the WHO was still unclear as to whether human-to-human transmission was possible. While unfortunate, it seems a trifle harsh to blame the WHO for not knowing everything about a virus which was just over a month old. Trump’s comments about WHO resistance to travel restrictions are blatantly false, and fit into the Trump administration’s overarching narrative of America being subject to, rather than empowered by, intergovernmental organisations.
The charge of a pro-Beijing bias is more complicated. The WHO is not a power unto itself. It has expertise, responsibility and authority in matters of international health, but very little power to compel member countries. As such, a report by Business Insider claiming that the WHO’s flattery of China’s response to the virus was intended to persuade Beijing to hand over the genome of the virus, is hardly surprising. To do its job, it needs member states to co-operate willingly. But that can mean flattering dictators and authoritarian states, rather than fighting for the liberal world order of which many say it is a lynchpin. This is not a weakness exclusive to the WHO – most intergovernmental organisations, whether it’s the UN or the EU, often have to compromise their principles in order to carry out their role.
What has Covid-19 taught us about the WHO? It is an international organisation like many others and faces many of the same problems. What to do about this is an open question.