May 18, 2021 | Foreign Policy

It’s Time for Biden to Ratchet Up the Pressure on the WHO

Washington and its allies have several levers for reforms.
May 18, 2021 | Foreign Policy

It’s Time for Biden to Ratchet Up the Pressure on the WHO

Washington and its allies have several levers for reforms.

U.S. President Joe Biden made the right decision for the United States to remain engaged in the World Health Organization (WHO), reversing former U.S. President Donald Trump’s misguided plan to withdraw from the global health body. This diplomatic U-turn provides Washington with an important platform to advocate for improved global health standards—as well as increased accountability for China and other WHO members with a history of rogue behavior that has exacerbated the spread of pandemics. The move also allows Washington to lead a multilateral movement aimed at streamlining the WHO’s sprawling operations and core functions, which have strayed significantly from the organization’s original mandate.

That’s the good news.

The downside is China and Russia are already undermining efforts aimed at restoring the WHO’s international credibility. This includes joining forces to derail a European Union-led proposal designed to address the organization’s flawed pandemic response by strengthening internal accountability and establishing institutional guardrails to neutralize pandemic disinformation. The EU’s proposal, intended for discussion during the WHO’s annual agenda-setting meeting beginning on May 24, would also mandate a fixed timetable for releasing the WHO’s final report on the origin and initial spread of the COVID-19 virus, a topic of keen interest not just to the Biden administration.

If history is any guide, achieving consensus among the WHO’s 194 members for even one of the EU’s proposed reforms is a long shot. What’s worse, Washington’s notable absence from ongoing discussions on WHO reform as well as its failure to nominate a U.S. representative to the organization’s executive board does not bode well for a near-term diplomatic breakthrough. With the clock quickly counting down to the late May gathering, the Biden administration needs to regroup—and fast. It also needs to realize the road to reforming the WHO does not run through Beijing, Moscow, or even Geneva, where the WHO is based, but rather through Washington, where Biden enjoys broad bipartisan support to counter China’s illiberal takeover of the United Nations and its various specialized agencies like the WHO.

But first, a painful WHO history lesson.

The devastation wrought by China’s COVID-19 playbook is all too familiar to those who lived through the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic in the early 2000s. Although China’s SARS cover-up was ultimately exposed by a whistleblower, Chinese authorities largely succeeded in preventing WHO teams from visiting outbreak locations in China. The Chinese government’s propaganda apparatus also wasted little time launching an all-out disinformation campaign to obfuscate the virus’s true origins, claiming SARS was a U.S. bioweapon. It was not until then-WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland issued a public rebuke of China’s stonewalling that Beijing finally budged.

The deadly SARS outbreak resulted in the ratification of the 2005 International Health Regulations, which mandated WHO member states establish domestic pandemic surveillance systems to detect acute outbreaks and report them to the WHO in a “timely manner.” The problem is regulations rely entirely on voluntary compliance; the WHO lacks a compulsory dispute mechanism capable of compelling member states to abide by their obligations.

Washington should recommend establishing a framework for global health sanctions to punish countries that disregard their WHO commitments.

These same limitations and the WHO’s history of prioritizing political sensitivities over medical and technical imperatives were similarly on display during the 2014 Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. Then, just as with COVID-19, the WHO took several weeks to declare an official outbreak even though there was ample evidence of spiraling caseloads. Afterward, an independent panel proposed significant WHO reforms to help rebuild the organization, including dramatically scaling back the WHO’s expansive range of activities to focus on its core mission. The panel, after reviewing leaked WHO emails, also chided the organization for failing to declare an outbreak for fear of political opposition from African leaders. Nearly all of the panel’s recommended reforms remain unrealized.

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China International Organizations