By Shishir Upadhyaya, a former Indian naval intelligence officer and author of ‘India’s maritime strategy; balancing regional ambitions and China’ (Twitter: @Shishir6) and Danielle Ryan, a freelance journalist based in Dublin. Her work has appeared at Salon, The Nation, RT and others. (Twitter: @DanielleRyanj)
With the WHO under attack for alleged complacency in dealing with Covid-19, the roles of other international organizations could be put under the spotlight, too. Is this a chance to rethink how global institutions should function?
When he cut funding for the World Health Organization earlier this week, US President Donald Trump accused the health body of being “China-centric,” of propagating “false information about transmission and mortality” and generally of mishandling the pandemic, which has taken 135,000 lives and seen two million people infected globally.
Trump’s decision to cut US funding to the WHO has, unsurprisingly, prompted outcry from many corners of the world. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc “deeply regrets” the decision, which came at a time when the organization needs it “more than ever.” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said cutting off the cash was a“very selfish approach” by the US and Moscow donated $1 million to the organization to fight Covid-19. Meanwhile, Australian PM Scott Morrison said the WHO was not “immune from criticism” but declined to cut funding from his country.
‘Glacially slow’ decision-making
While the abrupt move to halt US funding has been slammed by many, Trump has hardly been alone in directing ire at the health body.
The organization has long drawn criticism about the way it operates and fielded calls for the need for reform, even from inside its own ranks. The general consensus is that the institution needs to streamline its operations and become more efficient and accountable, in order to be able to show clear leadership and respond rapidly and decisively to crises.
Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie told Daily Mail Australia that the organization has been “glacially slow” in its decision-making during the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, Australia declared the outbreak a pandemic weeks before the WHO did and the Geneva-based body had also repeatedly said it did not recommend travel restrictions with China.
Taiwan, which has had one of the most successful strategies against Covid-19, wrote to the WHO in December warning about the “real possibility” of human-to-human spread, while the organization itself was declaring it had “no evidence” of human-to-human transmission, right up to mid-January. Taiwan is not a member of the WHO, due to the fact that the island is claimed by China, and it has repeatedly accused the organization of ignoring its warnings in order to keep Beijing happy. It was not until March 11, after the infection had spread to more than 100 countries, that WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus decided to declare the crisis a pandemic.
The WHO’s slow response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, waiting five months to declare an emergency, is widely regarded as a black mark on the organization’s reputation. So much so that an international panel of experts said in The Lancet medical journal in 2015 that it had been “unable to meet its responsibility” and should be stripped of its role in declaring disease outbreaks to be international emergencies.
Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Rolling Stone that the organization is suffering from an identity crisis. “Is it a membership organization or is it the world’s leading public health agency?” he asked, adding that it needs to decide whether the WHO is going to “serve its members or be a representative of the world’s public health needs.”
During the recent virtual G20 Summit, India called for a revamp of the WHO, with PM Narendra Modi stressing that the organization needs improvement in terms of its capacity for early warnings and development of effective vaccines. With so many loud and influential voices demanding reform, it is unlikely that the institution will emerge from this pandemic unchanged.
Hazy guidance and leadership
One recent example of the WHO’s failure to provide clear guidance and leadership surrounds its response to the reopening of China’s wet markets, one of which is believed by many scientists to be the source of the present outbreak.
Numerous reports have popped up in the past week claiming the WHO backed the reopening of the markets, based on a statement from one of its ambassadors. That news prompted some angry reactions, including from Australia’s PM Morrison. Yet, the WHO’s envoy on Covid-19 response, Dr David Nabarro, told BBC Radio 4 that the organization’s official advice was that the markets are “dangerous” environments for the spread of disease and should be closed. Another WHO spokesperson said reports suggesting that the organization backed the reopening of the markets are “incorrect.” Surely it is reasonable to assume that, during a global pandemic, there should be little confusion over the WHO’s positions on such matters.
Post Covid-19 world order
The Covid-19 outbreak has impacted the world order in ways that earlier international crises, like the 2008 global financial crisis or the Great Depression, have not. The West-led global order that emerged in the aftermath of World War II, which includes institutions like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the IMF was not set in stone – nor was it perfect.
For instance, the UN Security Council has no representation from Africa and does not include India as a permanent member, despite the country being home to the second-largest population on earth. Similarly, the G7 also does not include India, Russia and China and there have been many questions raised about the organization’s continued relevancy.
The 20th century global order has served the world well in many ways, with many countries entering an era of peaceful development – but the world has also changed in a multitude of ways and the current set-up seems ill-equipped to deal with 21st century realities. New forces of deglobalization, the rise of nationalism in many countries and the emergence of China as an economic, technological and military powerhouse to rival the US, all challenge the unilateralism which has characterized the post-war order.
This is evidenced by the failure of our global institutions like the WHO and the G7 – or even of regional institutions like the European Union – to provide the kind of decisive leadership that has been needed during this deadly pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis could now be the tipping point that sees the world order, one institution at a time, reviewed and revamped to fit the modern world – beginning with the WHO.
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