Covid shadow hangs over WHO international meet

·4-min read
The WHO's World Health Assembly kicks off Monday

With the pandemic still raging, the virus origins a mystery and wealthy nations hoarding vaccines, the World Health Organization gathers its member states next week, focused on averting the next catastrophe.

The 74th World Health Assembly will arguably be one of the most important in the WHO's history, amid calls to revamp the organisation and the entire global approach to health.

The WHO's main decision-making body will this year be keenly focused on the world's inadequate response to Covid-19 and the significant steps needed to prevent future pandemics.

It remains unclear though if representatives of the WHO's 194 member states, who will kick off nine days of virtual meetings Monday, will step up to the plate.

On the agenda is discussion of possible major reforms to the UN health agency, which has been pushed to the brink by Covid.

"The past year has been the most testing in our organisation's history," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week.

"However, it has also demonstrated why, more than ever, the world needs a strong and sustainable WHO."

- 'No shortage of challenges' -

Ministers and diplomats will, among other things, discuss the findings of three independent assessments of various aspects of the global response to the Covid-19 crisis.

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response's report, published last week, was the most damning.

It found that countries and institutions had been woefully unprepared to deal with the pandemic, and argued for a total overhaul of the global alarm system.

The experts also said the WHO needed significant reform to strengthen the organisation and boost its independence, suggesting it should be free to investigate health threats and sound the alarm about risks without waiting for the green light from the countries concerned.

They also urged a dramatic rethink of how the WHO is funded, to boost its financing and increase the stability and flexibility of the funds at its disposal.

Currently, only about 16 percent of the WHO budget comes from regular membership fees, with the remainder coming from voluntary contributions.

"Clearly there is no shortage of challenges," said Sueri Moon, the co-director of the Global Health Centre at the Geneva Graduate Institute.

- WHO independence -

A draft resolution to strengthen the organisation is under discussion and would aim to cement its central role in coordinating the response to global health crises.

The text, which has yet to be published, is expected to call for countries to submit to reviews of their pandemic preparedness.

It could also potentially propose allowing the WHO to travel to countries to probe serious health risks without an invitation, but there is significant pushback from some countries wary of encroachment on their sovereignty.

Backers meanwhile argue that with such a power in hand, the WHO would likely not have taken more than a year to send international experts to China to help investigate the origins of Covid-19.

The team that did finally go in January drew no firm conclusions.

There had been calls for the World Health Assembly (WHA) to decide the next steps in the probe, but no specific discussion of the issue is on the agenda.

Experts and observers have also highlighted the importance of boosting confidence in the WHO's independence, which has taken a hit as countries have traded blame over the crisis and accused the organisation of taking sides.

"Geopolitical pressure from different sources (has led) to the impression that maybe WHO is not independent," said Gro Harlem Brundtland, co-chair of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) and a former WHO chief.

While this impression may not be merited, she said she supported a proposal to change the WHO director-general's term limit from a possible two five-year terms to a single seven-year stint.

This would erase suspicions the WHO leader was being "lobbied to be reelected", she said.

A number of countries are also pushing to start negotiations during the WHA towards a new international treaty to prepare for the next global pandemic -- and avoid the unseemly scramble for vaccines hampering the Covid-19 response.

While the calls for global solidarity have been a constant backdrop during the pandemic, the crisis has only deepened inequalities, with vaccines especially going disproportionately to wealthy nations.

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