Despite limitations and global political intricacies surrounding it, vigorous survival of organisations like the WHO is essential
In the whirlpool of conflicting information that has hit is since the coronavirus began to surge in China, a few would remember the infamous World Health Organisation (WHO) tweets in mid-January claiming that there is "no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus."
They hardly explored the details of the first case in Thailand, and warnings from Taiwan and Hong Kong at the time.
Then late in January, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus heaped praise over the "seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak" and the commitment from "top leadership," instead of asking for adequate information.
In February, the WHO changed its narrative and said that China was not sharing data on coronavirus infections among health-care workers.
Tedros further praised "the transparency they (the Chinese) have demonstrated, including sharing data and genetic sequence of the virus," only to find his organisation in a position in late May where the member states set up an independent inquiry into the global response to the pandemic.
The WHO's conflicting statements and guidelines had made the headlines multiple times over the last few months.
Even though coronavirus had been rapidly spreading in various parts around the world, the WHO fell short of calling this a "pandemic" until March 11 when the virus was already in more than 100 countries and had infected more than 110,000 people.
When the WHO got stuck in a terminological bureaucracy to call a spade a spade, health experts like Anthony Fauci warned weeks before that many countries had "widespread transmission" and "spillover to other countries is inevitable."
Then again, there was the issue of whether to wear a mask or not? While some East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea had been strictly wearing face masks and they had comparatively lower infection rates despite being neighbours of China, the WHO went on to argue that there was not enough evidence to say that healthy people should wear masks.
On June 6, however, it changed its narratives and advised people to wear masks in public areas because they could provide "a barrier for potentially infectious droplets."
Against the backdrop of the WHO's confusion over masks, public health experts like David Hui – a respiratory medicine expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studied the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) extensively – found it a mere "common sense" that wearing a mask would protect against infectious diseases like Covid-19.
Also, take the outrageous confusion from the WHO about asymptomatic cases. Maria van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and the WHO's technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, said on June 8 that transmission of Covid-19 by people with no symptoms is "very rare".
But changing the narrative, only a day later on June 9, Kerkhove said that they are "absolutely convinced" that asymptomatic transmission is occurring.
With a serious absence of proper guidelines and allegations from various stakeholders of the organisation being too nice to China, the the future of the UN health organisation is now jeopardy.
As a reaction to Tedros' initial praise of the Chinese response, the WHO received a virtual slap when the Japanese deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, quipped that the WHO should be renamed the "Chinese Health Organisation". Thomas des Garets Geddes, a research associate at the China-focused Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, told Deutsche Welle that "such excessive and partly misleading praise was unnecessary and wrong."
The UN health body's criticism of underperformance of various stakeholders and its conflicting guidelines and allegations of being China-centric was enough for US President Donald Trump to bring in his own brand of politics of isolating the US from the rest of the world.
After weeks of threatening to cut ties, on May 30, President Trump finally announced the decision to terminate US relationship with the WHO. Without giving any evidence, Trump accused China of pressurising the WHO to "mislead the world" about the virus.
The USA was the WHO's single largest contributor as the country provided more than $400 million in 2019, which is around 15 percent of its total budget. With such a large share of its budget having disappeared, the WHO now finds itself in a complicated juncture in its history.
It has been an ongoing effort to reform the organisation (WHO) to be better at priority-setting; when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority
However, when allegations of the WHO being China-centric are being hyped, Kelley Lee, research chair in global health governance at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, has a different view.
Kelley finds it "ironic" that the US is accusing "WHO of being China-centric, when actually for decades, it has been accused of being very US-centric, if anything."
"So, it is kind of interesting how it is playing out, for sure," she told Vox in an interview.
The world needs the WHO
Kelley, who studied WHO reform efforts in the 1990s and is the author of the book titled "Global institutions: the World Health Organisation (WHO)", said the UN health organisation actually likes to be seen as scientific and medical and "trying to keep politics out."
"What I have written in the past is that it is inherently political. But the thing is, you want to have good politics, you want to have all countries being able to express their views… If you look at the WHO's constitution, it is a member-state organisation. It does not have independent authority to do what it likes," she said.
Lee, however, also admits the limitations of WHO, that "its design was almost impossible to fulfil unless you had the right resources."
But despite such limitations and global political intricacies surrounding it, the vigorous survival of organisations like the WHO is essential.
As mentioned in the Council of Foreign Relations, a little glimpse at the WHO's 2019 strategy where it identified three priorities tells the tale of what WHO stands for amid the hullabaloo of Trump-era politics of post-truth.
In its 2019 strategy, the WHO planned to provide health coverage to one billion more people; protecting one billion more people from health emergencies such as epidemics; and ensuring another one billion people enjoy better health and well-being, including protection from non-infectious diseases such as cancer.
The incumbent WHO director's inability to call out China on its first critical response to the virus can be criticised on political platforms, but it is also true that the organisation could not study the virus outside Wuhan at that time.
Also, in the past when the WHO was accused of being US-centric could too be an issue of political criticism. But nothing could justify Trump's termination of US relationship with WHO especially since under this president, the USA has pulled out from Unesco and UNHRC too.
With an escalating pandemic when countries gradually become more self-centered - when leaders like Donald Trump are championing ultra-nationalistic policies like America First - the survival of global organisations like the WHO is the only choice.
But for that, Kelley Lee advises the WHO to fix its priority issues. "It has been an ongoing effort to reform the organisation to be better at priority-setting; when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority."