Global disunity is an existential threat in the face of the pandemic
The United States President Donald Trump, this Friday, announced his intention to withdraw the United States government from the World Health Organization, a step against all international norms and principles of triumphant human philosophy thriving since the defeat of the tripartite axis pact of totalitarian politics ending the Second World War.
After the end of World War II, the United Nations was created as an intergovernmental organization upholding international peace and security. The World Health Organization (WHO) is a part of the UN system of specialized agencies that performs United Nations Humanitarian commitments.
A towering legacy
WHO establishes, monitors, and enforces international norms and standards in global health and disease. WHO leads global health in creating, reinforcing, and reproducing processes pertaining to decisions on global health standards and directions, coordinating interactions between countries and international institutions achieving good health for humanity within the United Nations system and framework.
The United Nations health organization delivers its core mission in global health, ensuring effective governance and robust communication among all important stakeholders, partnering with countries, the United Nations system, international organizations, civil society, foundations, academia, and research institutions.
WHO is at the forefront of any public health issue or disease process that threatens humanity, and is leading the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Seventy years on since April 7, 1948, the World Health Organization was founded on the principle that health is a fundamental human right and all people should enjoy the highest standard of health -- an aspiration embracing better health for everyone and everywhere.
This principle has guided WHO’s performance upholding the health of humanity and our constant combat against diseases ever since its inception. Partnering with countries and other organizations, WHO has made impressive progress in many areas that promote human health and wellbeing.
Since its creation in 1948, the organization has shouldered the International Classification of Diseases, as well as the advisory and directive missions on the rational use of modern-day antibiotics and on health rehabilitation of war-devastated countries.
Throughout the 1950s, WHO led the discovery of a vaccine for and the near eradication of poliomyelitis. The decade of the 60s observed the discovery of a measles vaccine, and the establishment of international regulations for the member countries to work together monitoring and controlling cholera, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, relapsing fever, and typhus.
This was followed by WHO’s expanded program on immunization for children worldwide; research, development, and training in human reproduction, encompassing sexual health and reproductive rights; and in tropical diseases leading to the near elimination of diseases like leishmaniasis, soil-transmitted helminthiases, continued battle against malaria, and re-emerging mosquito-borne disease.
In 1979, WHO successfully eradicated smallpox from the world, eliminating one of the nemeses in the history of human civilization. Humanity then faced the emergence of one of the health scourges -- the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the causative agent for AIDs -- but within a few years, WHO led the discovery of successful treatment and the policy guidance for countries on the disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.
In the late ’70s, WHO launched the concept of movement for primary health care “health for all,” and in the new millennium the “Millennium Development Goals,” or the “MDGs.” With the major successes in achieving MDGs, WHO -- under the umbrella of the United Nations -- launched the Sustainable Development Goals, or “SDGs,” in 2015.
In the interim period, WHO has forged ahead with the concept of essential drugs, satisfying the priority health care needs of a population, revising the drug list every two years that has been accepted as a powerful tool in ensuring global health equity, and the most cost-effective component in health care.
The organization’s DOTs strategy for reduction of harm caused by TB globally commenced in 1995, and within 18 years of the initiative 37 million people have been saved through diagnosis and treatment following the WHO DOTs strategy.
Since the later part of the first decade of the millennium, WHO successfully recognized demographic transition of diseases and tirelessly devoted energy in combating the means of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) worldwide, not ignoring the continued devastations caused by infective organisms of viral, bacterial, and parasitic origin, the adversity of tobacco consumption, nutritional deficiency, or excess.
WHO remains ever prepared against any threat to global public health, acute, recurrent, or long-standing, constantly striving to improve human health indicators.
Despite all the credible and admirable work, WHO, as an organization, has been exposed to criticism from time to time, as is natural for any other world body, but nothing compares to the recent head-on onslaught launched by the Head of Government of the largest economy, and the Commander-in-Chief of the largest Armed Forces of the world, the United States of America, President Donald John Trump.
Trump is supported by his conservative-liberal cronies. In his favourite social media outlet until recently, Twitter, he declared, “The WHO really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China-centric.”
It would be amazing to know that the annual operating budget of WHO was a mere $2 billion in 2019. Considering its terms of reference, performance, and success stories in achievement, it is in fact less than the budget of many a University Academic Hospital.
WHO as an international organization has no legal power to sanction its member countries and its advice, instruction, protocols, guidelines, directions are not binding by any of its member states. According to Lancet, the influential International Medical Journal, WHO has over the years been drained of power and resources, weakening severely its authority and capacity, and destroying its ability to direct a global response to a life-threatening pandemic like the present coronavirus.
As the world’s leading public health authority, WHO finds its leadership marginalized and its authority empowered by the international treaty severely curtailed by the obvious absence of present-day global unity and solidarity. Hence the organization’s inability and weakness to lead and direct global strategy against the pandemic.
The director general of the organization, as well as other senior personnel, appear to be visibly frustrated and disillusioned by the sheer apathy of the countries to the WHO directives consequent on the fraying of the international order, due mostly to blind and fundamental nationalism stoking national and racial supremacy.
The rules of global norms and the solidarity in public health crises seems to have crumbled, and the response to the coronavirus pandemic is fragmented, biased, self-directed, and without any obvious global coordination, leading to alarming levels of inaction by many countries.
Despite the very clear messages coming out of the World Health Organization, countries like the US and the UK appear to disregard them, though they are by no means legally entitled to do so.
The regulations came into action following the success of WHO in containing and stopping the SARs epidemic of 2003. The then director-general of WHO was Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, the past prime minister of Norway.
She had been among the very powerful and understood fully how to devise a road map acceptable to the highest echelon of the global hierarchy, particularly since the terms of reference of United Nation’s Health Agency could encompass any global health issue, and none was framed in any narrow confines but allowed undefined space to maneuver in any health threat endangering human life.
The success of WHO against SARs in 2003 was achieved by non-pharmaceutical interventions, and not by vaccines or drug treatment. WHO’s success against the spread of SARS was regarded as colossal. This unprecedented success against the virus allowed the Director-General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland to draw up the new International Health Regulations IHR of 2005, which was signed by all the member states.
It gives WHO the legality to declare a public health emergency of international concern using its own information, even disregarding any objection by any member state, and asks the member state or states to prepare against any public health threat according to the standard and guidelines set by the organization.
However, the IHR of 2005 does not give any legal power to the WHO to sanction any country that refuses to obey WHO directives.
A few days ago, the World Health Organization published a manifesto for a green and healthy recovery from the Covid-19 devastation, based on observed perception during the on-going pandemic.
By protecting nature, our source of air, water, and food on which human health depends, by ensuring our homes and health facilities have water and sanitation, access to clean and reliable energy, and are resilient to climate change by investing in a quick transition to clean energy that will cut air pollution -- so that when Covid-19 has been defeated people can breathe clean air -- by promoting healthy and sustainable food systems to give people access to healthy and affordable food, by building cities that integrate health into all aspects of urban planning, from sustainable transport systems to healthy housing, and by stopping subsidizing fossil fuels that cause pollution and drive climate change.
It is time for humanity to stand side by side in the battle against coronavirus sweeping unchecked through our beautiful habitat and refrain from narrow nationalism, monstrous ego, and disastrous global disunity endangering the very human existence.
Dr Raqibul Mohammad Anwar is a specialist surgeon and Global Health Policy and Planning Expert, and a Retired Colonel, Royal Army Medical Corps, UK Armed Forces.