The past weeks have seen the World Health Organization (WHO) and its director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus under fire as COVID-19 continues to spread across the world.
“They got it very wrong,” United States President Donald Trump accused the United Nations’ health body of not being aggressive enough. A global petition was then launched demanding for Tedros’ resignation, while another is circulating in his defense. Tedros reacted by urging critics to “quarantine politicizing COVID-19” and rather focus on national unity and global solidarity.
Southeast Asia – a region of 10 nations, home to 650 million people and collectively the world’s fifth-largest economy – must “vaccinate” itself from this “infodemic” against WHO and instead heed Tedros’ call.
The WHO is the only international body with institutional legitimacy and convening power for all matters related to human health. Its 72-year history has shown us that while it is far from perfect, global coordination to contain and eliminate some of the world’s most pressing health problems only became possible because of its existence. From smallpox and HIV/AIDS to smoking and humanitarian disasters, WHO plays a key central role in improving global health.
Much of the antagonism toward WHO has far more to do with partisan fighting within the US. and its ongoing wrestling match with China than anything else. This anti-WHO narrative is peddled to divert attention from the Trump administration’s belated and unimpressive action against the pandemic.
Unlike the early and effective measures adopted by Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Vietnam, the US’ response is having a catastrophic impact on its own citizens, a fact that could jeopardize Trump’s chances in the upcoming November presidential election. Tedros has repeatedly lamented in his daily press conferences that governments are not taking his advice seriously. He did not name them, but one can just imagine the US being at the top of the list.
The exaggerated attacks against WHO propagated on social media reflect limited understanding of its history, structure and current state. For the longest time, WHO has been chronically underfunded – its annual budget, slightly above US$4 billion, is smaller than that of some academic medical centers in the United States.
For many years, countries at large have not significantly increased their contributions but their demands have continuously grown, expecting WHO to assume more responsibility, such as leading international response against global health crises. Its enforcement capacity is also limited by the fact that it generally lacks power to police countries and sanction those that do not abide by its recommendations.
COVID-19 is revealing that especially in global crisis situations, a strengthened and transformed WHO – one with greater capacity, powers, and independence – is in the best interest of all countries, including the nations of Southeast Asia.
My country, the Philippines, is home to the Western Pacific Regional Office, which covers half of Southeast Asia as well as China (the other half is under the Southeast Asian Regional Office, located in New Delhi). This office is vital for global health security as this region is a global hotspot for infectious diseases – SARS and now COVID-19, as well as less known outbreaks of dengue and nipa viruses, originate from this part of the world. Southeast Asian nations and the entire world will be better protected from these emerging health threats if they invest more in enhancing the capacity of these regional offices.
Southeast Asia can also take the lead in reshaping the post-COVID architecture for global health security, just like what one of the region’s nations did before. In 2007, Indonesia threatened to not share samples of the avian flu (H5N1) virus with WHO, arguing that the country will probably not benefit from the vaccine that will be later developed. This is a legitimate concern, as historically it took years, if not decades, for developing countries to access life-saving vaccines and medicines.
This act of defiance alarmed the global health community, as Indonesia’s cooperation was crucial in tracking the virus. Years of negotiations later, the World Health Assembly adopted a Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Framework that clarified rules for virus sharing and guaranteed increased and equitable sharing of benefits such as vaccines and medicines.
Apart from being WHO’s critical friend, Southeast Asia can also be a good role model in terms of bringing WHO’s policies down to regional and national levels. As a regional bloc, ASEAN became one of the early adopters of the International Health Regulations (IHR), the legally binding treaty governing the global management of dangerous infectious diseases.
Guided by its consensus-based approach to decision-making, ASEAN “regionalized” the IHR in ways that suit the diverse contexts of its member states. The ongoing pandemic is putting to test these early gains in regional health governance, and ASEAN member states must use this opportunity for harvesting new lessons for the future.
Right now, the countries of Southeast Asia are fighting their respective battles against COVID-19 with differing levels of intensity and varying results so far. But the region should not participate in this fabricated war against WHO. Instead, the region’s nations should give the embattled agency their full cooperation and utmost support.
This is not to say WHO and Tedros – or even China – will be given a pass; they still must be held accountable. In fact, every government will need to face the international court of scientific scrutiny and the domestic courts of public opinion. But that full-blown investigation is reserved for later. Now more than ever,
WHO needs countries who cooperate and the public needs governments that deliver. Southeast Asia should not be distracted by someone’s tweets and instead focus on what matters – saving as many lives as possible.
The writer is a physician and senior fellow at the Aspen Institute.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.