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US-WHO standoff: Push for better performance, don’t weaken the WHO, say experts

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on May 31, 2020 Published on May 31, 2020

US President Donald Trump’s threat to distance the country from the World Health Organization had been in the offing for sometime now. And yet, the announcement over the weekend could not have come at a worse time.

The decision to cut US ties with the WHO comes even as the coronavirus pandemic had taken 3.6 lakh-plus lives of a total 58 lakh-odd cases around the world. The last few days has seen the death toll in the US alone cross one lakh, with close to 17 lakh-plus people confirmed with the virus. It’s a fragile time, with the world walking a fine line between lives and livelihoods, attempting to keep Covid-19 cases down even as they crank up their economies.

As the only multilateral organisation dealing in global health, the WHO needs to be pushed to perform better and strengthened, rather than weakened by stopping funding, says former Union Health Secretary JVR Prasada Rao. The WHO will be affected if its largest contributor exits, and this will, if anything, push it further towards another country, he added.

Over the last few months, Trump has been vocal in his criticism of the WHO and its alleged “China-centric” behaviour. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had responded then by urging world leaders to not politicise the virus.

The WHO can be credited with driving global campaigns such as polio and other vaccinations, anti-tuberculosis programmes, malaria-control and the successful anti-tobacco initiatives. The agency also facilitates the ‘solidarity’ trial, that supports the development of Covid treatments towards ensuring that no one country or company monopolises these products, he points out.

In fact, just last week, 30 countries and multiple international partners and institutions signed up to support the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) an initiative aimed at making vaccines, tests, treatments and other health technologies to fight Covid-19 accessible to all.

Unfortunately, says Rao, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) failed to get a resolution through on Covid as a security concern. Recalling 2000-01, he says, the UNSC did so with HIV, thereby ensuring that governments prioritise these concerns and fund it adequately. The US was headed by then-President Bill Clinton, UN by Kofi Annan and UNAIDS by Peter Piot, he said, indicating mature leadership.

Greater accountability

The calls have been increasing for a review of the WHO’s handling of the Covid pandemic. And at the recent World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO chief agreed to a review of not just the agency’s action but a comprehensive evaluation of the response of “all actors” involved.

The WHA saw Chinese President Xi Jinping commit funds of $2 billion over two years to the WHO. It also saw other leaders like France President Emmanuel Macron reinforcing the need for the WHO, albeit in a stronger role. The “WHO is us,”he had said.

The latest US-WHO tangle is a distraction the world could do without, says an expert, adding that there is only so much the WHO can do. It can only recommend action, especially with large countries, he added. As countries push for greater accountability and governance of the WHO’s actions, he says, member-countries too need to take greater responsibility for their actions.

Published on May 31, 2020
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