With the pandemic still raging, the virus’s origins unknown, and wealthy nations stockpiling vaccines, the World Health Organization will convene its member states next week, intent on averting the next disaster.
The 74th World Health Assembly will arguably be one of the most important in WHO history, with calls to reform the organization and the entire global health approach. This year, the WHO’s main decision-making body will be intensely focused on the world’s inadequate response to Covid-19, as well as the significant steps required to prevent future pandemics.
It is unclear whether representatives from the WHO’s 194 member states will step up to the plate when nine days of virtual meetings begin on Monday. On the agenda is a discussion of potential major reforms to the United Nations Health Organization, which has been pushed to the brink by Covid.
“The past year has been the most challenging in our organization’s history,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week. “However, it has also demonstrated why the world needs a strong and sustainable WHO now more than ever.”
Ministers and diplomats will discuss the findings of three independent assessments of various aspects of the global response to the Covid-19 crisis, among other things. The report released last week by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response was the most damning. It discovered that countries and institutions were woefully unprepared to deal with the pandemic, and it advocated for a complete overhaul of the global warning system.
The experts also stated that the WHO needed significant reform to strengthen the organization and increase its independence, arguing that it should be free to investigate health threats and issue warnings without waiting for approval from the countries involved.
They also called for a radical rethinking of how the WHO is funded in order to increase its funding and increase the stability and flexibility of the funds at its disposal. Currently, regular membership fees account for only about 16% of the WHO budget, with the remainder coming from voluntary contributions. “Clearly, there is no shortage of challenges,” said Sueri Moon, co-director of the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre.
A draft resolution to strengthen the organization is being discussed, with the goal of cementing its central role in coordinating global health crises. The text, which has yet to be published, is expected to call on countries to submit to pandemic preparedness reviews.
It could also propose allowing the WHO to travel to countries without an invitation to investigate serious health risks, but some countries are wary of encroaching on their sovereignty. Meanwhile, supporters argue that if the WHO had such authority, it would have sent international experts to China to assist in the investigation of the origins of Covid-19 in less than a year.
The team that was finally sent out in January came to no firm conclusions.
The World Health Assembly (WHA) has been called upon to decide the next steps in the investigation, but no specific discussion of the issue is on the agenda. Experts and observers have also emphasized the importance of restoring trust in the WHO’s independence, which has suffered as countries blamed each other for the crisis and accused the organization of taking sides.
“Geopolitical pressure from various sources (has given the impression that) WHO may not be 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 accurate, she stated her support for a proposal to reduce the term limit for the WHO director-general from two five-year terms to a single seven-year term. This would dispel any suspicions that the WHO chief was being “lobbied to be reelected,” she said.
A number of countries are also pushing to begin negotiations on a new international treaty during the World Health Assembly in order to prepare for the next global pandemic and avoid the unseemly scramble for vaccines that has hampered the Covid-19 response.
While calls for global solidarity have been a constant backdrop throughout the pandemic, the crisis has only exacerbated inequalities, with vaccines going disproportionately to wealthy nations.