The United States must remain committed to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations agency responsible for international public health.
It is more important than ever that the WHO’s 194 member countries have a common organization to establish worldwide health policies, and to act like a point guard when the world is faced with a global health crisis, coordinating responses and making clear and consistent recommendations.
The WHO has achieved great things since its founding at the end of World War II, including the end of smallpox, the near end of polio, and the promotion of greater access to health care services in poor and developing countries. That said, the Covid-19 crisis has revealed significant shortcomings within the WHO, and the entire organization needs to make serious institutional changes.
Although the WHO was criticized for its relatively slow response to the Ebola crisis, the response to Covid-19 was worse, exposing deep flaws throughout the entire system. Among other things, it took the WHO far too much time to understand the impact of asymptomatic carriers, as well as the benefits of the most obvious things like masks. They also waited far too long to declare an emergency.
This is really unfortunate because a University of Southampton study found that the number of coronavirus cases could have been dramatically reduced if non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) would have happened just one to three weeks earlier: “If NPIs could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier in China, cases could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent, and 95 percent, respectively, together with significantly reducing the number of affected areas.”
One of the main reasons for this delayed reaction is that the WHO was far too deferential to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has proved masterful at developing allies within the organization. Even though many Chinese doctors and scientists were sounding the alarm about things like human-to-human Covid-19 transmission, the WHO continued to perpetuate Xi Jinping’s misinformation to the contrary.
…to the point that Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the end of January 2020, “The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken. I left (China) in absolutely no doubt about China’s commitment to transparency.”
< Before we get too judgmental about this, we should remember that our own president was also praising Beijing at that time: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” >
One of the main problems is that the WHO has become way, way too political. As a result, the leadership allows itself to be pulled in too many different directions, between influential members like China and the United States, and even by private donors like the Gates Foundation. This has to change. The WHO must have leaders who don’t bow to political pressure. Period.
An additional problem is that the WHO is severely underfunded. Its 2020 budget was around $2.4 billion, which is less than the public health funding of many small U.S. states. That’s not nearly large enough, given the WHO’s mandate.
Lastly, the WHO is a fairly toothless organization. It doesn’t have the authority to deploy teams to member countries without being invited, or demand information from members, or to investigate them on any level. The structure should be more like the World Trade Organization (WTO), where the rules – which are set and enforced by the members – can impose disciplines on the individual policies of member countries.