Building a healthy future with WHO

Building a healthy future with WHO

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WHO DG Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Geneva, Switzerland, July 3, 2020. (Reuters)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus but has faced, and still faces, heavy criticism for its initial handling of the outbreak. The organization was too complacent regarding China and often echoed Beijing’s messages; it took too long to declare a global health emergency, and there were 4,000 deaths before it warned of a pandemic. Fake news coupled with legitimate global fear during the peak of the spread led many to discredit the organization and question its motives. The outcry eventually led the US, the largest donor, to sever its ties with the organization and halt its funding.
It is not my intention here to tarnish or polish WHO’s reputation since the organization has certainly made significant mistakes not only during the initial weeks of the coronavirus pandemic but also throughout its history. One can still remember its failures during the 2013-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and its slow response that eventually led to the deaths of more than 11,000 people.
So the question is, do we still need the WHO? Simply put, yes. There is no other organization or country that can fill the role of the WHO in this capacity. While the number of organizations working in global health is growing rapidly, only the WHO has 194 member states, allowing it to engage in collective action. It is also instrumental in developing research, employs thousands of health workers who often work in harsh and remote areas, advocates for change in policies and, finally, builds on multilateral partnerships.
Founded after the Second World War, the WHO is crucial in creating a coordinated and global network of alliances and partnerships to respond to health emergencies in and between nations. With a humble annual budget of around $4.4 billion, it has played a leading role in numerous health breakthroughs, including the development of the Ebola vaccine. Perhaps its most notable achievement was leading the coordinated worldwide campaign that led to the eradication of smallpox.
However, multinational organizations like the WHO cannot carry this responsibility alone. It requires the cooperation of governments, private donors, philanthropists and innovators. One successful example is the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), led by national governments with five partners — the WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Supporting the initiative is the equally crucial partnership between Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and the Gates foundation.
A year ago, according to the WHO, GPEI received an additional $2.6 billion from donors during the Reaching the Last Mile Forum in Abu Dhabi. The Gates foundation offered the biggest pledge of $1.08 billion, followed by the UK, which pledged $514.8 million. The Abu Dhabi crown prince, co-host of the event alongside the Gates foundation, pledged $160 million. In 2014, Sheikh Mohammed launched the Emirates Polio Campaign, part of the UAE-Pakistan assistance program, which has led to more than 86 million children in Pakistan being vaccinated since its launch.
Today we are on the cusp of completely eradicating polio, with reported cases totaling only 132 (53 cases in Afghanistan, 79 in Pakistan).
This partnership model exemplifies the incredible successes we can achieve if we pull together toward a common goal. It also shows that it is almost impossible to replace the role of the WHO, even with its shortcomings. That is why Trump’s decision to stop funding the organization was not just foolish but also dangerous. And it is why one of Biden’s first decisions as president should be to rejoin the WHO.

In a world that is deeply interconnected, the role of international institutions remains relevant.

Asma I. Abdulmalik

Those who criticize the WHO should consider for a minute the vacuum its absence would create. No country can act as an independent global health advocate outside of the WHO. While it is true that the WHO cannot maintain absolute independence, since it depends on funding from other nations, and that it has limited power, it still manages to achieve a lot. While we cannot pretend the organization is without fault, surely the best approach is to address its shortcomings without the bullying and, most importantly, without severing ties?
In a world that is deeply interconnected despite growing nationalist sentiment, the role of international institutions remains relevant. Global governance matters and international cooperation is still necessary. We have certainly learned that during the past year. We should be fostering these partnerships, and encouraging novel and innovative approaches.

  • Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik
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