From the Viewsroom

WHO’s hot seat

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on September 29, 2021

As they elect a new chief, strengthening the world body is key

The process to elect a new head to the World Health Organization has begun, and the general feel is that it may be unwise to change the chief of an army, in the midst of a war.

And the pandemic has been no less. SARS-CoV-2 has changed the battle lines with variants, for instance, forcing health administrators and scientists to change tack.

In doing so, the WHO has had to walk on egg-shells, starting with the mask misadventure in the early days of Covid-19 last year. Eighteen months on, the agency continues to navigate a minefield — calling out inequitable distribution of vaccines, explaining why booster doses are not required now, and investigating the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The report-card may not always be stellar, and WHO has come in for some high-profile attack and low-level trolling last year, when the Trump-led administration in the United States called off its support to the United Nations organisation. But those bridges have since been on the mend. The US walks a twin path now — going ahead with booster doses (against WHO advice), while purchasing vaccines for low-income countries that need it.

The SARS-CoV-2 origins-mystery, though, is not one to be solved in a hurry, with China standing its ground that they have been transparent with details and timelines. In fact, they are calling for investigations into leads from other countries including the US. The WHO’s perceived closeness with China has lost some sheen since last year, as WHO continues to support investigations into the Wuhan lab-leak theory, as a possible origin of the virus.

Besides Covid-19, there’s the health crisis in Afghanistan, the endgame on polio and the need for a sustainable development pathway combining health and climate. That should be the theme, as WHO members elect their person to the hot seat, next year. The effort should be to strengthen the WHO, because warts aside, it is the only transnational body on health the world’s got.

Published on September 29, 2021

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