World Health Organization: Is it fit for purpose?

Briefing 12-05-2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19, the disease resulting from the novel coronavirus SARS-COV2, a pandemic on 11 March 2020, putting the United Nations (UN) agency in the global spotlight. The WHO is coordinating international efforts to fight the virus, for example by issuing guidelines on preventing and treating the disease, and coordinating research into testing and vaccines. Critics argue that the WHO was overly accommodating of China, and as a result failed to handle the pandemic effectively in its early stages. According to them, the WHO too readily accepted Chinese reassurances that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. The WHO also failed to hold China to account for its initial cover-up, and even praised its transparency. Even before coronavirus, the WHO already had a mixed track record, including, on the one hand, successful eradication of smallpox, and on the other, a delayed response to the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014, which may have cost thousands of lives. Its failures, both in the Covid-19 pandemic and in previous health crises, highlight long-standing problems: the agency is weak, underfunded, and its complex organisational structure can get in the way of effective action. Underlying such weaknesses is the fact that the WHO is entirely dependent on cooperation from its member states and can only act within the limits set by them. While Covid-19 has highlighted many of the WHO's weaknesses, it is also a reminder that diseases respect no borders, and that the organisation's task of global coordination has become more necessary than ever.