On January 30, 2020, the novel coronavirus outbreak was declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) — the World Health Organization’s (WHO) highest level of alarm.

It was a precurser to calling it a pandemic, which resulted in unprecedented action across countries, leaving in its trail empty roads, grounded flights and locked-down cities. And, a heavy toll on life and livelihood.

Cut to early-January 2022, the WHO reiterates that Covid-19 “continues to constitute a PHEIC”. This followed the 10th meeting of the emergency committee on coronavirus, which had advised accordingly.

The developments unfold just days ahead of the third anniversary of the PHEIC declaration and the WHO’s 150th executive board meeting, starting Monday. On its agenda, among other things, are deliberations on a “pandemic treaty” for an international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response.

In the past decade — which witnessed SARS, avian flu and more — the WHO has been in the hot seat, criticised sometimes for calling a pandemic too late, or too early. But never before in recent memory has it come under such severe scrutiny over its actions and inaction.

And for these reasons, say experts, there could not be a more opportune time to strengthen the WHO — its financing, independence and mechanisms for ‘benefit sharing’ on information, for instance.

Also, since pandemics are scripted into the world’s future, with threats coming from diminishing animal habitats, illegal trade of wildlife and meat, and bio-terrorism, say experts.

For better or worse

The last two years witnessed, among other things, a stand-off between the US administration under former President Donald Trump, who had alleged that the WHO was soft on China.

But there have been laudable developments too — the fastest vaccine developed in history, and mechanisms to tackle SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. The WHO has not been “ïmposed” on countries, says virologist Dr Shahid Jameel, who adds that it is “an organisation belonging to countries”, and health ministers of member countries are represented. India’s former health minister had chaired the board in an earlier session.

The WHO’s future role depends on what countries want and is for the World Health Assembly to decide, but it has done a “decent job”, he says, despite early missteps in communication.

A major gain this time is that the world came together and shared Covid-19 data and science, says Dr Jameel, Fellow, OCIS and Green Templeton College, Oxford University (UK), and visiting professor at Ashoka University (India).

“This is the first human pandemic that will be stopped by vaccines,” he says. The need now is for “countries to agree on a code of conduct”. As a pandemic treaty gets discussed, he says, “if people don’t hold up (to their promises), what will a new treaty achieve.”

Third World Network’s KM Gopakumar agrees that the WHO has provided scientific guidance and spoken up against vaccine inequity. However, it could have done more, and member countries would have been bound to listen, he adds.

‘Benefit sharing’

Pointing to the Omicron fiasco, where African countries faced the brunt for first reporting the emergence of the highly mutated variant, he says that ‘benefit sharing’ (as seen in biodiversity issues) should be brought in, where countries sharing samples that give the world a better understanding of the virus should also benefit from the tools developed to combat it.

Calling out the dependence on funds from developed countries and foundations, he said access-linked loopholes need to be plugged.

Observations that weigh-in heavily, as the Covid-19 tally ticks on, with 340,543,962 confirmed cases, including 5,570,163 deaths, reported to the WHO.