The World Health Organization (WHO) has been under attack- efforts being made to defund it, ridicule it, undermine it. The world is fighting a major pandemic which rivals the flu of 1918, which killed over 50 million people.
The Coronavirus pandemic may well be a precursor of what is to come in the future. This for sure is not the last pandemic the world will grapple with, so let’s brace for impact, as the velocity and virulence of the next contagion may be far more fierce and destructive than COVID-19.
A recent remark that “WHO has been bought by China” is painful to hear. Coming from a senior leader of a country which is the beating heart of the UN’s multilateral system, and has been at the vanguard of improving lives and livelihoods of populations all over the world, is puzzling.
Words matter, and by promoting a number of incorrect and insinuating statements, such language may damage the overall pandemic response and undermine an organization that is doing its best – under the extraordinary circumstances – to save lives across the globe.
I live in Kenya, and on a day to day basis I see the WHO working with countries across the continent to strengthen health systems and tackle health crises. These African countries, like many others especially in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, rely on WHO for guidance, expertise and often for human resources, particularly around disease responses like Ebola, Marburg, Zika or the plague.
I myself have been a beneficiary of the organization’s work, having been immunized as a child through one of the WHO immunization programs, and surviving polio thanks to these efforts. Small pox would not have been eradicated without WHO. Billions more have benefited from WHO’s work, and humanity as a whole stands to gain from a well-funded, highly operational institution not only during this pandemic, but for years to come to prevent the next pandemic and build robust health systems.
Currently, there have been more than 15 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 600,000 deaths around the world. But this tiny microbe has impacted far more than just the global health system. It has pressure tested our political, economic, social and cultural institutions, attacking not only our bodies but the very threads of humanity that hold us together. What’s clear already is that the virus mercilessly exploits any chinks in national unity or global solidarity, making it an enemy far more formidable the modern world has seen in recent history.
At a pivotal time for tackling the pandemic, the global response needs solidarity, not politicization. The attacks against WHO threatens to derail global efforts to bring this pandemic under control.
Over the course of the next few months, governments will determine not only how they tackle COVID-19, but they will set a precedent that will guide the world for tackling future global threats. No country can overcome this pandemic on its own, no matter how advanced its economic systems are or how mighty its military is.
This pandemic is threatening lives, livelihoods, social and economic systems that have taken decades to build. It is an enemy that is threatening to reverse the gains the world has made in healthcare, education, poverty reduction, eradicating hunger and strengthening political unity.
For the sake of humanity, we must stand united against it, and this means supporting institutions that are playing a key role in the pandemic response.
From the climate crisis to inequality, antimicrobial resistance to the threat of a meteor hit, global challenges need global solutions, and these solutions cannot be developed if we focus on demonizing institutions rather than addressing the real issues at hand.
In terms of COVID-19, we have seen examples from around the world that clearly show that no matter how bad the outbreak, leaders can get a grip on the virus. By working with a whole of government and whole of society approach, the virus can be brought under control. Countries that have done this successfully, including New Zealand and Vietnam, which stand out as exemplars of how to tackle the pandemic, have shown us that a singular focus on preventing transmission and keeping their populations safe – not engaging in politics, blame games and blatant denial of science – is what is needed to ultimately flatten the curve.
WHO continues to provide valuable leadership in navigating the pandemic, helping the world deal with this crisis by distributing much-needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and diagnostics, providing technical guidance for health workers, leading efforts to find a vaccine and disseminating information that is playing a critical role in keeping people safe. Reducing support for WHO at this time is therefore tantamount to saying that we are all on our own. But we are not.
At the conclusion of the 73rd World Health Assembly on 19 May 2020, the WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “COVID-19 has robbed us of people we love. It’s robbed us of lives and livelihoods; it’s shaken the foundations of our world; it threatens to tear at the fabric of international cooperation. But it’s also reminded us that for all our differences, we are one human race, and we are stronger together.”
Let’s take a moment to look at the value WHO brings to the world. It may not be a perfect institution, but it is providing global leadership at a time when it is needed most.
What WHO has achieved in 72 years is remarkable, and undeniable. To accelerate the science, find solutions to the COVID-19 challenges and build global solidarity; now more than ever, the world needs WHO.
Siddharth Chatterjee, is the United Nations resident coordinator to Kenya. He has served with the UN and the Red Cross Movement in various parts of the world affected by conflicts and humanitarian crisis. He is also a decorated Special Forces veteran and a Princeton University alumnus. Follow him on Twitter @sidchat1
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.