Covid-19 will not be beaten without international co-operation. But with insular nationalism on the rise, where does the organisation go from here?by Ngaire Woods / May 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
Lambasted over Covid-19, slow in its response to Ebola, and led by a man who once appointed Robert Mugabe as goodwill ambassador, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is under fire. President Trump has announced he will suspend US contributions, the largest single slice of its funding. But its many detractors offer no workable alternative. Without international co-operation, Covid-19 will not be beaten. Nor will a plausible exit strategy—or any return to sustainable economic growth—be possible.
The WHO as we know it today took 170 years to build. Way back in 1851, countries started trying to find a way to co-operate in the face of infectious diseases, such as cholera and plague. During long sessions of International Sanitary Conferences, before and after the First World War, international rules were carefully worked out. But at every stage, co-operation was thwarted by disagreements among technical experts, by the costs of preventive measures, and by the short-sighted selfishness of many national governments.
The efforts at health diplomacy culminated in the creation of a new standing transnational body in 1948, with the WHO’s work beginning in earnest three years later—exactly a century on from that first international conference. It was born in that rare moment of enlightened multilateralism that followed the Second World War, which also saw the creation of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the Council of Europe.
The temper of our own times is very different, but the basic rationale for close co-operation on public health is still rock solid. Without it, the spread of Covid-19 will take longer to detect, trace and contain, those afflicted will suffer untreated for longer, and—crucially—it may never be possible to draw a robust line under the disease.
So how do we ensure that co-operation? For starters, it requires an international agency trusted to bring together the scientific evidence and to ensure the sharing of information among governments—the very job for which the WHO was created. But today, it is caught in the crossfire of a blame game. It is criticised for having cosied up to China, and for wasting precious time. (See not only Trump, who is never slow to hunt noisily for a scapegoat, but…