Diminishing WHO ‘s relevance
13-08-2020 No Comments » UPSC - IAS Bhavesh Singhal

Prelims Focus Points: Headquarters and Reports published by the WHO, Members, and term of its Executive Board.

Mains Focus Points: Contributions of World Health Organization, Criticism, Way Forward

COVID-19 has emerged as a pandemic with huge health and socio-economic toll on people worldwide. With infections reaching more than 19 million and death toll touching 0.7 million marks, it is important to discuss the role of global health watchdog WHO (World Health Organization) in dealing with this pandemic.

WHO – An Overview

World Health Organisation (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. Its main objective, as written in its constitution is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health“. It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland with six semi-autonomous regional offices and 150 country field offices worldwide.

WHO was established on April 7, 1948. It was the first specialized body of the UN to which every member subscribed. WHO’s foundation day i.e. April 7 is commemorated as World Health Day. The theme for 2020 was “Year of the Nurse and Midwife”.

As of now, the World Health Organization has total 194 member states: It includes all of the member states of the United Nations excluding Liechtenstein. Any state only can become a full member of the World Health Organization by ratifying the treaty. This treaty is known as the Constitution of WHO.

WHO has World Health Assembly (WHA) as its legislative and supreme body. It meets yearly and the member states of the WHO appoint delegates to the World Health Assembly. It appoints the Director-General (Head of WHO) every five years and votes on matters of policy and finance of WHO, including the proposed budget.

WHO elects 34 members, who are qualified in the field of health, to the Executive Board for three-year terms. The main functions of the Executive Board are to implement and carry out the decisions and policies of the World Health Assembly.

WHO also publishes World Health Statistics Report.

Contributions

WHO has a long history of taking challenges of eradication of diseases and living by its motto of ‘Health for All‘. Some of its significant steps in this direction are:

  • Eradication of Small-pox in 1980.
  • Eradication of Polio. As of 2019, only 3 countries (Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) are suffering from this disease.
  • In 2008, the WHO initiated the observance of the ‘World Malaria Day’ on April 25. In the African region (worst hit by Malaria), the death rate due to malaria has been brought down by 60%, as of 2018.
  • Global Fund to fight AIDS, T.B., and Malaria
  • WHO endorsed the world’s first official HIV/AIDS Toolkit for Zimbabwe, which formed the basis for global prevention, treatment, and support the plan to fight the AIDS.

India and WHO

India became a member of the WHO on January 12, 1948. WHO’s Regional Office for South-East Asia is situated in New Delhi. World Heath Organization has played a significant role in eradication of Polio and Small-pox from India.

Country Cooperation Strategy (2012-2017) – It has been jointly developed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the WHO Country Office for India (WCO).

The National Strategic Plan for Eradication Of Malaria (2017-22) is formulated with the support of the World Health Organization’s Global Technical Strategy for Malaria (2016-2030).

Criticism

World Health organization is being criticized for its slow response to COVID-19 Pandemic. The arguments are:

  • The earliest case of Corona was reported in November – 2019 but China informed about it to WHO in January – 2020. With the country representative stationed at Beijing, it is unlikely that the widespread transmission went unnoticed.
  • Even when there was increased number of confirmed in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and the US, WHO continued downplaying the severity of the virus.
  • It declared COVID-19 pandemic as a public health emergency of international concern only on January 30, when it became almost impossible to contain the virus.
  • 2003 SARS pandemic was contained only because WHO was on fast track mode which was absent in its response to COVID-19 and 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Another criticism of World Health Organization is its reliance on rich member states for funding. it is funded through assessed and voluntary contributions from its member states and through private donors. But these voluntary contributions are only allocated in consultations with the donors, while accessed contributions can be spent as per the organization’s priorities approved at the WHO.

In 2018-19, it’s total budgetary support only had 17% assessed contributions while voluntary contributions accounted for nearly 80%. Which raises a challenge of autonomy in decision-making and not favoring a donor-driven agenda.

With criticism of favoring China and its failed arrest of COVID-19 Pandemic, many world leaders had started questioning WHO. US President Donald Trump had even withdrew US, it’s highest donor, from World Health Organization.

Way Forward

Fundamental Reforms in UN including World Health Organization is the need of the hour. WHO needs to be made more transparent, accountable, and competent. India can take the front seat in stirring the UN in this new direction.

WHO must evolve to fully meet the need of the 21st century and can start by getting out of its 1940’s institutional structure.

Fun Fact: Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Indian Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare, has been elected as the Chairman of WHO’s Executive Board from May 22, 2020.

Read also: DELSA organizes first online Lok Adalat

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