Evaluating criticism of WHO - wrongdoer or scapegoat?
World Insight with Tian Wei
The World Health Organization has been at the center of attention and controversies since the COVID-19 outbreak began this year. In April, U.S. President Donald Trump halted U.S. funding to the organization and later announced the country will withdraw its membership completely. How should the WHO's COVID-19 response so far be evaluated? What challenges lie ahead for the global health organization? CGTN's Tian Wei put these questions to Kelly Lee, professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Lee also co-established the WHO Collaborating Centre on Global Change and Health.
Tian Wei: Has the World Health Organization been doing things wrong since the beginning of this pandemic? Or has the organization been used as a scapegoat by certain governments and politicians?
Kelley Lee: It's probably going to somewhere in the middle. No organization has got everything right, and no country has got everything right. I don't mean to sit on the fence by any means, but I think we don't know what the facts are until we have an investigation when this pandemic is over. The real important dates are after January 30, when every country got the same information and the WHO declared an emergency. Every country had the opportunity to act at that point. Some did and some didn't. I think that's why some countries have done so well and others have done so poorly in controlling this pandemic.
There's an election coming up in the U.S. and it's no coincidence that this kind of rhetoric is being ramped up as we get closer to the election. I have made no illusions that there's a huge political agenda going on here. But at the same time, I'm trying to focus on what could we do better in terms of WHO's emergency response. This is the important thing because the WHO needs to gain countries' trust. It would be really difficult to control a global pandemic if countries don't coordinate with the WHO.
Tian: What is your evaluation of the WHO's performance since the outbreak began?
Lee: I think the WHO has done what it's designed to do: it collects data and it gives advice. It also brings together the world's best scientists to try to develop vaccine or treatments. For example the "solidarity" trials WHO initiated are very unique. In terms of whether advices are translated into action, it would then depend on the national governments.
When the WHO was set up in 1948, it was set up as a member state organization, which means that it had limited powers and resources. The WHO can only advise it can't compel or force countries to act in a certain way. It is very difficult for the organization to do a lot of the things that people are expecting it to. I think perhaps we need to look at, do we need some sort of an organization that maybe has more powers and maybe more capacity to require countries to act a certain way.
Tian: We know that the U.S. has suspended contributions to the WHO and President Trump threatened to permanently halt funding. What does that mean for the organization now?
Lee: The timing could not be worse, just like you're trying to fight a big fire and somebody turns off the water in your hose. It will hurt the WHO which is already underfunded. Things like providing PPE to countries that can't afford it. So turning off these resources is actually hurting yourself, because the organization is trying to work to protect global health security. If anything, the resources should be increased.
It's been kind of three decades of underfunding of public services, and what we're seeing now is the impact of that. We see in countries that have very weak public health systems, those who can afford it get access, and those who don't, they are getting sick. In a pandemic, we're as healthy as our neighbor. We are as healthy as the most vulnerable in our societies. So if we don't help everyone, we actually hurt ourselves. I hope the message gets through after this pandemic: we need to invest in public health infrastructure.
World Insight with Tian Wei is an international platform for debate and intelligent discussion. It is the meeting point of both the highly influential and rising voices, facilitated by host Tian Wei. It provides nutrition to form your own thoughts and ideas through a 45-minute live debate and interviews.
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