US President Donald Trump has threatened to pull out US funding from the WHO. This happened during the present crisis. WHO’s early management of the crisis disappointed him. He has accused the organization of being too lenient with China and written a four-page letter to the WHO director-general Tedros. It blamed the organization of showing an “alarming lack of independence” from China. A timeline was presented showing the failures of the organization. He also pointed out that the WHO had reported Chinese studies on the nature of the crisis. It has ignored the organization’s explicit warnings about the dangers of the infection.
Some statements in Trump’s letter were inaccurate. For example, on 31 December Taiwan had warned about the human to human transmission of the virus. But, Taiwan sent a letter to the WHO stating the recent series of unexplained cases of pneumonia in Wuhan. It also asked for more information and about the patients that were in Isolation. Trump blamed the organization of not sharing information about the virus on time. He stated that the WHO had ignored reports about the spread of the virus in Wuhan in early December 2019.
It also ignored reports from the Lancet medical journal. But, the journal negated the assertion as incorrect. It stated that the publication of the first paper on the virus took place on 24 January. As the pandemic is getting worse in the US and other countries are starting a gradual recovery, Trump has tried to blame China and the WHO. He suspended US funding for the WHO. Also, he highlighted the gap between the US and much smaller Chinese donations. He also accused Tedros and his team of being “China-centric”.
Violation of International Law by China
The law governing the role and responsibilities of the WHO during a pandemic outbreak is the International Health Regulations, 2005 (IHR 2005). The IHR (2005) is international legislation which enables countries to work together to save lives and livelihoods resulting from the spread of foreign diseases and other risks to health. Under Articles 6 and 7 of the IHR of 2005, there is a need for every member State to examine events on its territory. It should inform the WHO of any unintended or unexpected public-health event.
It should represent a public health emergency of international concern. In these circumstances, the member state should inform WHO within 24 hours of such evaluation. To determine whether a particular event is likely to constitute an international public health emergency, a state requires to meet the requirements set out in Annex 2 to the IHR 2005. For example, whether the public-health impact of the incident is serious; the incident is rare or unexpected or if there is a major risk of international travel.
Deliberations on the Statements
So, an outbreak of a novel coronavirus was likely to constitute an international public health emergency. There was an obligation upon China to notify the WHO within 24 hours of such a report. The Chinese government informed the local WHO office of the outbreak, on 31 December 2019. It described it as “pneumonia of an unknown origin”. But several reports suggest that the outbreak had actually occurred much earlier. It had occurred at the start of November 2019. But there was the suppression of this information by local authorities in Wuhan. According to the reports, China’s government censors and arrests journalists and doctors who raised alarm about the spread of the virus. Thus, China delayed in informing the world about the virus and allowed it to spread globally.
The Letter addressed by Trump
In his letter, Trump also blamed China for causing a delay in informing the world about the virus. China knew about the virus much earlier than it informed the world. Trump stated in his letter:“Even now, China continues to undermine the International Health Regulations by refusing to share accurate and timely data, viral samples and isolates, and by withholding vital information about the virus and its origins. And, to this day, China continues to deny international access to their scientists and relevant facilities, all while casting blame and censoring its own experts.”
The IHR 2005 does not provide any enforcement mechanism for the states that fail to follow its provisions. The IHR places every responsibility on the Member State. It does not place any responsibility on WHO. The Member States must immediately inform the WHO of new incidences. But the IHRs do not allow WHO to compel that from them. Many of Trump’s accusations about WHO is also outside of the organization’s limited authorities. For example, the investigation of the outbreak or pressuring the Chinese government.
Power in the hands of WHO
WHO has little power for all the responsibilities vested in it. Unlike the World Trade Organization, WHO is a UN specialized organization. It cannot bind or penalize its members. Its operating budget for 2019 was roughly $ 2 billion. This is lower than that of many university hospitals. It divides into a larger number of projects in public health and research. Trump also misinterprets the authority of WHO. The agency cannot compel data from the Member States. Its bylaws only need it to accept the information provided by a government with its consent. It also has no power or intelligence to force a country to accept its officials. This prevents it from carrying out any real independent investigation.
Impact on Public health
The United States was the largest funder of WHO in the 2018-19 Program. It accounted for $553.1 million. This comprises of 14.67 per cent of WHO’s funding. Pulling out the funding by Trump will make it more difficult for the WHO to co-ordinate treatment and vaccine drug tests. It will also be difficult to fight the pandemic in developing countries. The actions of Trump threaten the efforts of WHO to provide expertise and coordination in various other health issues. This could be worse for places with poor infrastructure that do not have a strong presence.
Recommendations and Solutions
Since the 19th century, international law has played a significant role in communicable disease surveillance. It should continue to play this role in the 21st century when the globalization of the world’s political economy and that of a pandemic is increasing. International law has been at the boundaries of communicable disease surveillance, within the mandate of WHO as the IHR is not
observed by the member states.
States will follow an international law if it is in their best interest to do so. Thus, it is important to raise public health to the level of a “global public good”, where it meets the common interests of the member states. In the long run, the legitimacy of global health governance stimulates if states start to feel that they can protect their people from the threats of transmissible diseases by following international health rules/regulations. The truth is that the process of globalization, which enabled its permeation from remote areas, has continued to erode the territorial limits of nation-states.
There are war games which keep countries ready to face a crisis. there should be germ games to train teams on how to respond during a pandemic. Microbes, not missiles, are the new global threat. In coordination with military forces, a trained and ready epidemic army establishes to control the pandemic. The expertise of the armed forces can be of significant help during a global health crisis. Combination of military and emergency medical professionals can help to eradicate a pandemic.
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