With the public health crisis comes the need for reform of the WHO, which is being used by China’s totalitarian-capitalist regime as a lever against democracies.
At a time when we are up against the most serious epidemic since Spanish flu, the World Health Organization is undergoing an unprecedented crisis. Founded in 1948, its principal task consists in dealing with epidemics and public health crises. In order to do this, it has limited legal powers at its disposal with regard to its 194 member states. The WHO played a major role in stemming the 2003 SARS epidemic: it made Beijing open its doors to experts, as well as set up and finance health measures that made it possible to limit the spread of the virus in China and its immediate periphery. Following this outbreak, international health regulations were reinforced in 2005.
It has to be said that, in spite of its powers having been extended, whilst the WHO played an exemplary role in the SARS outbreak, its role in the Covid-19 epidemic has been questionable. This was evidenced at its AGM, held online on 18th and 19th May. The meeting should have been devoted to speeding up research and to drawing up an agreement for universal access to any medicines, tests, vaccines and equipment needed in the fight against Covid-19. However, debate was monopolized by the issue of the WHO’s shortcomings in dealing with the epidemic and by the question of Taiwan which, because of its remarkable handling of the public health crisis (7 deaths out of a population of 23 million), wanted once again to obtain observer status, which it had been granted between 2009 and 2016 but which had then been withdrawn as a result of pressure from China.
The WHO has thus been caught up in the fact that the epidemic has been politicized both on an international level and in domestic politics where it has been transformed into a lethal weapon by autocrats and populists. The AGM was therefore the scene of a tough skirmish between the USA and China. Xi Jinping dismissed accusations of delayed action and non-transparency, and refused an international enquiry to be set up into the origins of the epidemic, at the same time promising to share any eventual vaccine and to devote $2 billion dollars over two years to the fight against Covid-19. Donald Trump responded by accusing the WHO of being a puppet of Beijing and threatening to suspend any financing if there were no major improvements made within 30 days. On the initiative of the European Union, a motion was finally adopted in favor of an impartial, independent and complete evaluation of the WHO’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. This audit is not likely to get off the ground because it involves an enquiry into the way in which the Chinese authorities were informed of the existence of the epidemic and how they dealt with it between November 2019 and the placing of Wuhan and Hubei in quarantine on 23rd January 2020. Beijing will never agree to this.
However, there is no doubt that the WHO has failed badly. It accepted China’s belated declaration of the illness on 31st December 2019, whereas the first cases had been known to occur back in November. It produced extremely cautious conclusions about the possibility of human transmission when it carried out an inspection in Wuhan on 20th and 21st January. It only announced a pandemic on 11th March 2020. It issued numerous declarations praising China’s handling of the epidemic and criticized countries that closed their borders with China.
Therefore, the COvid-19 epidemic underlines the need for reform of the WHO. This means strengthening the Secretariat and creating a body of international health inspectors with the proper powers to investigate. At the same time, financing should come from permanent sources and not from voluntary contributions from member states or private foundations. Lastly, whistle-blowers like Doctor Li Wenliang should be recognized and protected.
Above all, the WHO crisis is emblematic of the decay of the multilateral system that has come under fire from Donald Trump. The disorderly withdrawal of the USA leaves international organizations at the mercy of China, which is using this as a lever to promote its model of totalitarian capitalism. At the same time, Beijing has been driving its economy towards greater power, extending its influence with the emerging nations and taking control of the UN system, within which it heads four of the 15 commissions. The WHO is the perfect example: it has come under China’s influence at the same time as China has become the world’s pharmaceutical factory with a quasi-monopoly over the active ingredients of medicines. There is a lot to be learned from the WHO crisis.
- Multilateral institutions play a key role in the management of global risks in the 21st century.
- The fact that China has taken control of the UN system shows the absurdity and the failure of Donald Trump’s isolationist strategy.
- Western democracies must re-engage in multilateralism, but must also involve the emerging nations.
- Reform of the WHO is indispensable and must aim at strengthening its powers and restoring its independence. This also means that the Western democracies must invest massively in their healthcare systems as well as in the biomedical industry, which is vital for their security.
(Article published in Le Point, 28th May)