As the coronavirus explodes again, the World Health Organization finds itself both under intense pressure to reform and holding out hope that US President-elect Joe Biden will reverse a decision by Washington to leave the health agency.
With its annual meeting underway this week, WHO has been sharply criticized for not taking a stronger and more vocal role in handling the pandemic. For example, in private internal meetings in the early days of the virus, top scientists described some countries’ approaches as an unfortunate laboratory to study the virus and a macabre opportunity to see what worked, recordings obtained by The Associated Press show. Yet in public, the UN health agency lauded governments for their responses.
Biden has promised to overturn President Donald Trump’s decision in June to cut off funds to WHO and withdraw the US WHO has also bowed to demands from member countries for an independent panel to review its management of the pandemic response, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday that the agency welcomed any and all attempts to strengthen it for the sake of the people we serve.
One of the central dilemmas facing the WHO is that it has no enforcement powers or authority to independently investigate within countries. Instead, the health agency relies on behind-the-scenes talks and the cooperation of member states.
Critics say WHO’s traditional aversion to confronting its member countries has come at a high price. As COVID-19 spread, WHO often shied away from calling out countries, as big donors such as Japan, France and Britain made repeated mistakes, according to dozens of leaked recordings of internal WHO meetings and documents from January to April obtained by The Associated Press.
Some public health experts say WHO’s failure to exert its influence lent credence to countries adopting risky outbreak policies, possibly compromising efforts to stop the virus.
We need WHO to be bold and to use their political power to name and shame because the consequences are so devastating, said Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University in London.
This is their Spanish flu moment By not speaking up when countries are doing questionable things, WHO is undermining its own authority while the planet burns. Others said it would be politically unwise for WHO to be too outspoken unless countries give the agency more power and the ability to censure countries an option that Germany and France have recently proposed.
If Tedros was to take a very aggressive stance toward member countries, there would be repercussions, said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, referring to WHO’s director-general.
WHO spokeswoman Farah Dakhlallah said that since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, WHO officials have had and continue to have, frank and open discussions with government counterparts We are proud of an organizational culture that fosters candid discussion with the aim of reaching life-saving solutions.
One of the scientists in the meetings, emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan, also laid out WHO’s approach in answer to a media question March 11 on whether the agency was willing to say which countries weren’t doing enough.
The answer to that question is, you know who you are, Ryan said. The WHO doesn’t interact in public debate or criticize our member states in public. What we try to do is work with our member states constructively. It’s not unprecedented, however, for WHO to publicly question its member states. It threatened to close its China office when the country was hiding cases during the SARS outbreak, loudly called for Nigeria to reverse its boycott of the polio vaccine in 2003 and accused Tanzania of not sharing enough information about an Ebola epidemic last year.
The review of WHO’s role in the pandemic comes at a critical time because the agency is now tasked with helping to buy and distribute coronavirus vaccines around the world once any prove effective, especially to poorer nations. Some countries, including the U.S. and Russia, have refused to join the effort, but on Sunday, WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said she hoped Biden’s election would open the door to U.S. inclusion.
WHO’s reticence to call out countries started with China, as the AP earlier reported. Despite a January meeting between Tedros and Chinese President Xi Jinping, information on the outbreak was still sparse throughout February. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, noted that the agency lacked enough detail to say what has worked and what hasn’t.
Yet at a media briefing shortly afterward, Tedros said, China is doing many good things that are slowing the virus and the facts speak for themselves. Also in February, WHO scientists were concerned about Japan. On Feb. 1, a passenger who disembarked the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Hong Kong tested positive for the coronavirus. At the ship’s next stop in Yokohama, 10 more cases were found and authorities put all 3,711 people on board under lockdown.