American President Donald Trump has suspended American funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) holding that, “WHO pushed China’s misinformation about the virus”. It is reported that he said that “a review is being conducted to assess WHO’s role in covering up the spread of the coronavirus”. A powerful thunderbolt has struck this world body which has the reputation of working unaffected by international politics.
WHO, which is receiving bulk of its funds from the US is accused by this biggest donor for mismanaging the crisis, by failure to vet information and sharing it in a timely and transparent manner. This move came after China imposed restrictions on publication of a research work on the origins of COVID-19. To the US President, WHO seems to be “very China-centric” and failed to declare the spread of the pandemic in time.
Republican law makers in the US asked WHO to provide documents of all its communications with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party regarding public health from 19 August 2019 and on the total number of infections and fatalities caused by COVID-19 in China. They want American funding to go to “organisations that uniformly serve the interests of nations across the globe”. The remark conveys their strong suspicion about neutrality of this international organisation.
USA is the biggest donor to the WHO with its annual contribution of about $450 million which is nearly one-quarter of the budget of the WHO. It is reported that the organisation is reviewing the impact of any withdrawal of the US funding on its work and that it would work to fill any gaps and ensure uninterrupted work.
Expressing “serious concern” over suspension of funds to the WHO by the US, China has hinted at enhancing its contribution which is about $45 million. This cannot make up for the loss. Critics inside and outside the US are of the opinion that it is not the right time to reduce funds to WHO or any such body engaged in humanitarian work.
WHO was born in the month of April 1948 and has completed 72 years. It is successor to the League of Nations Health Organization. Establishing an organisation “to protect and promote the health of the world’s people” was a priority item for the nations that met in 1945 to form the United Nations Organization for world peace. The constitution of the WHO says that, “the enjoyment of highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”. 1948 was also the year of Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Besides fighting COVID-19, WHO is also engaged in eradicating polio, measles, Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis, cancer, diabetic, mental disorders, etc. Even diseases that have been eradicated need constant watch to prevent their return. It is working with countries to strengthen their health systems and to improve access to life-saving health services.
The war against COVID-19 requires the united power and efforts of all countries. Without that, every country, rich and poor, will be in trouble. Whether the spread of the virus can be regulated or directed by human efforts is not known. WHO has initiated the global Solidarity Trial to find at the earliest effective drugs to treat COVID-19.
Worldwide COVID-19 cases exceed 24 lakh. USA has registered the largest number with over 7 lakh. Spain is reaching 2 lakh cases followed closely by Italy. France and Germany have around 1.5 lakh cases each and UK 1.2 lakh. India with less than 18,000 cases is in a far better position presently, but pandemics pick up speed very quickly. A total of 185 countries/regions are hit, and about 1.6 lakh have died.
China locked down the city of Wuhan on 23 January and WHO Director-General warned that while the emergency was for China and not for the world, the virus had the potential to spread global. Differences among experts regarding the scale of threat from the virus persisted for long, but only by the end of January, a global emergency was declared. America, however, took much longer time to perceive the danger and declare a national emergency over coronavirus on 13 March.
To put the WHO in a financial crisis when its expertise and services are most needed is an unthinkable calamity. The organisation has several achievements like smallpox and polio eradication, vaccination for yellow fever, and mental health services. It has assumed global governance of health and disease stemming from its functions of establishing, monitoring and enforcing international norms and standards and coordinating the work of multiple actors towards a common goal. Of all the agencies of the UNO, the WHO can and must remain free of politics as health and diseases are not bound by international borders. This belief is now becoming false.
Globalisation offers opportunities as well as challenges for promotion of health and control of diseases. It has accelerated the spread of contagious diseases. Exchange of medical knowledge, health practices, and treatment techniques are necessary for medical advancement which undoubtedly has made great progress in the modern world.
Global team work is needed particularly in health and disease control in view of increasing global travel, trade, communication and contacts which contribute to globalisation of diseases. Information, ideas, rights and obligations transcend national borders and cover humanity in general and even extend to animal and plant world.
Public health is no longer a local matter, but is actually stretching as a global interest. A new global health era is taking shape which will see global cooperation and coordination of efforts, pooling of material and human resources, and accumulation and dissemination of knowledge and information. International management of health and disease is possible only if we establish and enforce global norms and standards.
COVID-19, the most devastating pandemic that the world has experienced, has further confirmed what other UN agencies have also revealed, about the limitations of international organisations and their dependency on powerful States. They all rely on member-States to furnish information. Herein lies their strength and weakness.
The International Health Regulations (2005) is a legally binding instrument of international law that aims to assist countries to work together to save lives and livelihood endangered by diseases and other health risks. They are framed to prevent and protect against diseases, control and provide a public health response to international spread of diseases.
We have to strengthen the existing international health organisation and remove the blocks, if any, in its functioning. The 73rd World Health Assembly is scheduled to meet next month and before that, some concrete proposals must be worked out to make the WHO stronger with authentic global data and technology for global acceptance. More importantly, the US charge against the organisation must be cleared, for the world has a right to know the truth behind the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and the need to unite against it.
The world cannot withstand even thoughts and speculations over creation and manipulations of infectious germs
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