Probe Covid origin and lay the foundation for global health accountability
With the 73rd World Health Assembly – the decision-making body of WHO – underway via teleconference, the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic is taking centrestage. Crucially, WHA is taking up a motion backed by more than 120 countries, including India, that calls for a “stepwise process of impartial (unbiased), independent and comprehensive evaluation” of WHO coordinated international response to Covid-19. It also calls for the identification of the zoonotic source of the coronavirus and its transmission to human populations. True, the motion refrains from mentioning China or Wuhan. But its implementation (execution) will necessarily have to include investigation into China’s handling of the outbreak in the initial days.
A probe into the origin of the coronavirus is important to understand how it mutated and spread so quickly. But China has been objecting to such a probe and even threatened (pressurize) Australia with trade repercussions for trying to drum up international support for an investigation. In fact, Canberra has already been hit with a beef strike with Beijing suspending imports from four major Australian suppliers. But with the WHA motion getting the backing of a majority of nations, China may not have a choice but to go along with it. That said, the fundamental issue here is WHO’s limited ability to tackle a pandemic like Covid-19. The global health body can only issue advisories and has no enforcement powers.
This has to change and WHO should be reformed to play a more active role in preventing global health threats. The minimum it can do is ask for annual compliance (the action or fact of complying with a wish or command) reports from member countries vis-à-vis health recommendations made by it – something that its constitution already allows. With India taking over the chair of the WHO executive (administrative) board, it should push for new crisis management protocols and give the global health body some teeth. Covid-19 has shown that WHO can’t remain a soft adviser. It must helm a global health architecture that demands accountability.