India is positioned to play a leadership role in seeing to the implementation of the World Health Assembly resolution calling for an independent inquiry into the current pandemic outbreak. Fortunately, India's Health Minister Harsh Vardhan (pictured) is the new chairman of the 34-member World Health Organization Executive Board. (Photo by Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images)
It is heartening to note the 73rd session of the World Health Assembly (May 18-19, 2020) approved a resolution calling for an independent inquiry into the current pandemic outbreak and the World Health Organization's role in responding to it.
The resolution -- brought forward by the European Union, moved by Australia and supported by more than 116 nations -- including India and Japan -- demands that WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus "identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population..." The resolution also calls for an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation into the WHO-coordinated international health response to the pandemic.
The importance of these requests hardly needs to be stressed. There is evidence that the WHO's suppression of the news related to the pandemic outbreak in China overlooked went a long way in the spread of the disease and caused immense loss of life and damage to economies the world over. The feeling goes that the WHO must develop an appropriate mechanism to prevent such pandemics in the future.
One, however, is not sure if and when Tedros will pay attention to implementing this resolution. He does not seem enthusiastic about the probe. He would, he said in his opening remarks at the WHA, "initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment."
It seems Tedros would prefer, as in the past, to follow his masters in Beijing. According to reports, Beijing knew of the coronavirus outbreak as early as November 2019. But Chinese President Xi Jinping admitted to the virus on January 20, 2020 when more than 3,000 people had already been infected. The WHO did nothing to find out the truth. It waited for China to confirm the outbreak. It labelled the epidemic a public-health emergency on January 30. It declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11.
In mid-January, the WHO said there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. As late as on January 10, the WHO advised "against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China." When Australia, India, Indonesia, Italy, and the US imposed restrictions on travel from China, Tedros criticized the actions, saying it would increase "fear and stigma, with little public-health benefit."
At the WHA session, China supported a comprehensive review of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic only after the pandemic was brought under control. Xi said at the WHA that any inquiry should wait until the virus was contained -- an outcome that could, of course, take years, if ever. Xi also pledged $2 billion over two years to the WHO, to control the spread of Covid-19, presumably including control of the WHO along with it.
India, the world's largest democracy, is positioned to play a leadership role in seeing to it that the WHA resolution is implemented and that a strong WHO emerges. Fortunately, India's Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, a physician, is the new chairman of the 34-member World Health Organization Executive Board. He and his colleagues on the board could prevail upon the WHO Director General to take steps aimed at implementing the resolution of the World Health Assembly.
Vardhan and his colleagues might consider that there is no other option to implementing the WHA resolution and reforming the WHO today, or else replacing it with another, responsible, organization. Vardhan, after taking over as WHO Executive Board chairman, said that the Covid-generated challenges "demand a shared response." He now needs to move forward in this direction. The global health watchdog today needs to provide transparency, assist in the search for a vaccine, if one is even possible, and in efforts to eliminating the Covid-19 pandemic completely.
Vardhan will undoubtedly have deep interaction with all members of the executive board, who are all technically qualified in the field of health. He could particularly focus on interacting with the board members from democratic nations such as US Assistant Secretary of Health Admiral Brett Giroir, Austria's Special Envoy for Health Clemens Martin Auer, Finland's Permanent Secretary (Ministry of Health) Päivi Sillanaukee, Germany's Deputy Head (Division Global Health) Björn Kümmel, Israel's Associate Director General (Ministry of Health) Itamar Grotto, Britain's Chief Medical Officer (Department of Health and Social Care) Chris Whitty, Australia's Deputy Secretary (Department of Health) Lisa Studdert, and South Korea's Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Ganglip Kim.
Recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC's "This Week" there is "enormous evidence" that the novel coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan, and a recent report from the US Department of Homeland Security has faulted Beijing for downplaying the threat.
In a May 18 letter to Tedros, US President Donald J. Trump recounted the missteps in the WHO's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and gave him 30 days to make fundamental reforms. If the WHO does not do what is needed, Trump warned, the he would "make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the WHO permanent." Trump has also said that under such circumstances, the US will "reconsider our membership" in the WHO.
Vardhan and others in the WHO executive board cannot procrastinate. All serious allegations against China and the WHO must be investigated and made transparent to the world without delay.
Jagdish N. Singh is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.