NEW DELHI: The World Health Organization (WHO) is facing criticism for not allowing reforms that could enable the planet’s premier health agency to respond with speed and agility to today’s global health challenges. Experts say that some reform measures are pending for decades and were not implemented by the WHO even after witnessing mishandling during the Ebola virus outbreak.
In his study, Devi Sridhar of the University of Oxford and Lawrence O. Gostin of the Georgetown University Law Center in 2011 said: “In December 2010, Jack Chow, the former WHO assistant Director-General asked, ‘Is the WHO becoming irrelevant?’ A month later, the WHO’s executive board considered the agency’s future within global health governance. After a year-long consultation with member states on its financing, Director-General Margaret Chan called the WHO over-extended and unable to provide quick and efficient response to today’s global health challenges. Almost a decade is about to be over since the study was published, but the circumstances remain the same at WHO, and many people still seek the answer to the question ‘Is the WHO becoming irrelevant?’”
After every virus outbreak or in a situation of epidemic, the role of the WHO comes under scrutiny. It happened during and after the Ebola outbreak and the same scrutiny demand is underway after the outbreak of Covid-19. Many countries, including India, Japan, Taiwan (not a member of WHO), have joined the voice in launching fully-fledged criticism of the WHO. Not only government officials, but NGOs, too, have launched a campaign against the failure of transnational health agencies.
The most scathing attack came from Japan, the country which is one of the biggest fund contributors among WHO members. Accusing the WHO of toeing the Chinese line on the Covid-19 outbreak, Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said: “The World Health Organization should be renamed as the Chinese Health Organization.” While addressing the House of Representatives in Tokyo, Taro Aso also mentioned a petition of which has called for the resignation of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for mishandling of the pandemic. Ghebreyesus is an Ethiopian politician and academic who has been Director-General of the World Health Organization since 2017.
“People think that the World Health Organization should be renamed as the CHO (or Chinese Health Organization). This is truly resonating in the petition of which has received 500,000 signatures,” Taro said.
Similar criticism of the WHO was launched by Taiwan, though Taiwan is not a member country of WHO as the country has been kept out from becoming a member due to its tense relationship with China.
India has also joined the bandwagon and expressed the need for reforms in WHO.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked global leaders to think about the need for reforming multilateral organizations, including the WHO. Most of the outrage against the WHO is for its alleged mishandling of the pandemic that occurred due to the spread of the coronavirus last year. A new respiratory infectious disease, Covid-19, caused by a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, emerged in early mid-November 2019. Since then, the virus has spread to India and 106 other countries. The first case was detected in mid-November 2019 in China’s Wuhan province and it took almost three months for the WHO to sense that the spread of the virus is a pandemic, as it declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on 11 March 2020.
Vishal Dave, a former law faculty member of Delhi University and an expert on multilateral organisations, told The Sunday Guardian: “Before February 2020, WHO was uncritically repeating the information that it was getting from the Chinese authorities. The United Nations (UN) body ignored the warnings from Taiwanese doctors and showed its reluctance to declare Covid-19 a pandemic.”
“The WHO focused on praising China’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak and failed to highlight the negative aspects of China’s response. WHO’s praise gave China tools to spread propaganda that it has achieved the status of being a health superpower and that is not at all correct. WHO also left many questions unanswered—for example, how the WHO reached at a conclusion on 14 January, a crucial juncture in the spread of Covid-19, that human-to-human spread of the virus has not been detected, is a complex reality to understand,” Dave said.
The WHO on 14 January had said that “preliminary investigations done by Chinese authorities have suggested no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the virus.
Though Dave criticized the WHO for its mishandling of the pandemic, he thinks that there is a need for a strong global health agency. “The question  whether the WHO has become irrelevant, is an invalid question as the agency has helped in dealing with many diseases, including tuberculosis, HIV, and polio. Only a handful of people would dispute about having global health cooperation, but we need a strong global health agency,” he said. The WHO claims that since 2012, the agency has undertaken a comprehensive series of reforms to make the organization fit for the purpose, and is better equipped to address the increasingly complex health challenges of the 21st century, but the current scenario suggests that it still needs to undertake many reforms to deal with the complex health situation. According to Dave, none of the suggestions outlined in the study of Devi Sridhar and Lawrence O. Gostin—that gives many guiding points—are not really visible in the WHO’s recent reforms process undertaken by the agency in 2019. The study of Sridhar and Gostin had outlined reforms that include giving a real voice to multiple stakeholders, improving transparency, performance, and accountability, closer oversight of regions, exert legal authority as a rule-making body, and ensuring predictable, sustainable financing, global health leadership. “In my view, there is a lot at stake both for the WHO and for Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who has a five-year mandate to run the WHO,” Dave said.