Can Biden Reform the World Health Organization?

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The Biden presidency is off to a swift start. Last month, a U.S. delegation headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci participated in the World Health Organization (WHO)’s executive board meeting after the administration reversed its predecessor’s withdrawal from the U.N. organ over its handling of Covid-19 and its approach to the Chinese government. Instead of severing ties, Biden wants the United States to work within the WHO to strengthen and reform it. This move and the Biden administration’s wider commitment to restoring American relationships with international institutions are just as well given the unprecedented challenges Biden faces as the western world’s newly minted de-facto leader.

Increasingly virulent strains of Covid-19 continue to wreak havoc across the world and could trigger an economic crisis. Biden will also need to address relations with an increasingly belligerent China that has consistently downplayed, lied about or attempted to deflect from its own role in the pandemic whilst obstructing global health workers and brazenly asserting its diplomatic and military clout against rivals.

Biden’s approach is wise given the importance of the role that a global organization capable of tackling future pandemics that could affect us all plays. Reform is certainly something that the WHO needs given its unacceptable mistakes that former President Trump rightly criticized it for. 

The Chinese regime knew about human-to-human transmission of Covid-19 in the pandemic’s early days. When it suppressed this information and told the WHO the opposite, the claim was taken at face value. But the WHO should’ve known better since it criticized China as far back as 2003 for failing to cooperate, impeding its staff and suppressing information during the SARS outbreak.

But the WHO went even further. Its chief, Dr Tedros Ghebreysius, then praised Beijing for its “timely action and transparency.” Conversely, life-saving information from Taiwanese officials about the risk of the virus’s human-to-human transmission that was communicated as far back as December 2019, was not passed on to the WHO’s member states- potentially costing countless lives.

The blunders didn’t end there. As late as April 2020, the WHO continued to deny there was enough evidence that Covid-19 was airborne. Only in June 2020, once 400,000 people had died, did the WHO finally advise mask-wearing where social distancing isn’t possible. Mistakes like this put public trust that the WHO needs to uphold global health and combat misinformation at risk.

So too does its failure to hold governments, like Beijing, to account. A WHO team investigating the virus’s origins was only granted admission to China last week after months of diplomatic wrangling. While Dr Ghebreysius did criticize Beijing for this, he’s yet to hold the regime accountable for withholding information and suppressing, jailing or allegedly outright disappearing researchers and journalists who refused to toe the official line on Covid-19.

Given that the United States is China’s largest trading partner and the single biggest state funder of the WHO, supplying it with 15% of its 2018-19 budget, the Biden administration has the leverage to address these issues. It can start by lobbying Beijing to cease further impediments to independent investigations into Covid-19.

Biden must also join world leaders like Australian Premier Scott Morrison in calling for an investigation into both China and the WHO’s handling of Covid-19 to promote accountability and prevent future mistakes that will cost lives. This must include an investigation into Beijing’s suppression of Covid-19 dissidents and whistle-blowers, and ways that the WHO can better engage and support those with legitimate health information that their governments won’t accept or disclose.

Biden can also push the WHO to reorient its priorities if it’s to receive greater funding. Some medical experts describe the WHO as under-resourced for international responses to pandemics given its purportedly low budgets, like $2 billion in 2019. However, the WHO also spent only $805.4 million of its 2018-19 base program budget on tackling communicable illness, compared to $735.7 million for non-communicable illnesses (like obesity and cardiovascular illness) and promoting health over the course of life.

These are absolutely important objectives. But they don’t require the kind of rapid response and extensive international cooperation and coordination that fighting communicable illnesses like epidemics do, and that the WHO is uniquely placed for. National governments are generally best placed to implement public health and education strategies related to lifestyle factors among their own populations. There could be scope, then, for governments and other public health non-governmental organizations to shoulder a greater burden in addressing these problems than they do currently since communicable disease outbreaks are much harder to address at just the local level in an interconnected world, and can paralyze public health systems and cripple the global economy in a matter of weeks. Besides, the economic fallout from global pandemics that are improperly contained, like the current one, only means damaged budgets for states that the WHO relies on for funding. And that threatens its long-term future.

President Trump’s critics condemned him for withdrawing from the WHO. But the WHO remains plagued by problems that threaten America’s national interest just as much as global public health. A less “insular” American leader could help make it great again.

Satya Marar is a Senior Contributor at Young Voices.

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