Now at the heart of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization learned lessons from the 2014 fiasco involving the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Financially weak, it still depends on the major powers.
Should we discredit the World Health Organization in light of COVID-19, the most serious world health crisis since the Spanish flu in 1918? Certain critics of the organization were considering doing so in 2014, when the WHO waited too long to grasp the scope of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which cost 11,000 lives. It paid a heavy price for the lack of authority its headquarters asserted over its regional offices. Faced with governments that act increasingly under the pressure of rampant nationalism, it nevertheless provides an essential global view of the pandemic. Individually, states will never overcome the coronavirus, which will doubtless have dramatic consequences in terms of mortality (between 2% and 3%) as well as in economic terms.
In a geopolitical context that is increasingly favoring a clash between China and the West, the WHO is navigating in rough waters. Equipped with a budget comparable to that of the university hospitals of Geneva, it is poorly financed. Primarily prescriptive, it does not have the power to impose rules like a supranational organization. The WHO’s excessive deference to China and its way of managing the epidemic is somewhat shocking, since we know that, as with SARS in 2003, Chinese authorities delayed reporting the first cases. It is becoming increasingly less comfortable to resist the country that will one day become the top economic power on the planet. The heavy politicization of the WHO is not without danger: It risks undermining the independence that is necessary to the organization.
The United Nations agency learned lessons from the 2014 fiasco, putting a solid program in place dedicated to health emergencies. It is also endowed with more professional and transparent communication. Since the beginning of the epidemic, the WHO has held a daily press conference. But this won’t be enough if the strong political instrumentalization of the WHO persists. A war between China and the United States within the WHO would have dramatic repercussions, notably impaired management of future pandemics, and having to strike bargains over the lives of a staggering number of victims. With COVID-19, the WHO is undergoing a full-scale health exam.
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