The World Health Organization, created to lead international efforts to deal with infectious diseases, is facing a headwind. While there are many controversial issues regarding the institution, maximizing its functions should be given priority over other matters for now.
Epicenters of the new coronavirus pandemic are projected to shift from developed countries in Europe and the United States to developing countries such as those in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Without containing the virus worldwide, it will be difficult to fully return to normalcy in terms of the cross-border flow of people and socioeconomic activities.
In countries where health and medical services are fragile, people are in great need of information and materials related to infectious diseases. The WHO deploys more than 7,000 personnel in more than 150 countries to gather information and offer instruction. It goes without saying that the strongest calls ever are being made for the WHO to provide assistance based on its knowledge to the people on the front lines.
The problem is that the WHO has become a battleground between the United States and China, and its authority has been questioned.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. government will halt its payments to the WHO for 60 to 90 days to examine its management, accusing the organization of mishandling the outbreak of the new coronavirus by operating in a way that was lenient to China.
The U.S. contribution accounts for about 16% of the WHO budget. If the U.S., the largest contributor in the world, withholds financing, the WHO’s activities will inevitably be restrained or scaled back. Trump took the issue to extremes.
Of course, we cannot overlook responses taken by the WHO, which can be interpreted as giving consideration to China.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s response to the virus outbreak even though it is quite obvious that its initial response was so late as to miss the opportunity to deal with the outbreak. He also expressed a negative view on the U.S. decision to bar travelers from China.
Taiwan claims that it warned the WHO of the pandemic in China but the organization failed to act on the information. The WHO, when headed by a former director general from Hong Kong, decided not to allow Taiwan to attend its assembly as an observer.
Tedros’ home country of Ethiopia has been receiving massive economic aid from China. Concerns have been raised over whether the neutrality and trust required for heads of international organizations have been preserved. On the internet, a petition calling for his resignation is collecting signatures, saying he is unfit to be the WHO’s director general.
The WHO needs to take such criticism seriously. When the situation is brought under control worldwide, the global body should be urged to move ahead with examining its responses to the pandemic and implementing organizational reform. Matters of discussion would likely include how to select its leader and conduct its management, both in a way to avoid being entangled with U.S.-China disputes.
Japan keeps a distance from the U.S. in its relations with the organization. Tokyo takes a position of maintaining its funding to the WHO and beginning a review of its responses only after seeing the end of the pandemic. Britain and Germany are also calling for cooperation with the WHO. It is essential to create an environment in which concerned parties seek to maintain international cooperation.
— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 24, 2020.