The annual gathering of the 194 member-states of the World Health Organization kicked off with all eyes on the global response to Covid-19 and what concrete steps can be taken to avert future pandemics.
Proposals from the world leaders in attendance included vaccine sharing, strengthening the WHO and the adoption of a pandemic treaty.
“We are at war with a virus,” United Nations chief Antonio Guterres told the opening of the 74th World Health Assembly. “We need the logic and urgency of a war economy, to boost the capacity of our weapons,” he added.
With the Covid-19 crisis still raging and wealthy nations hoarding most doses of life-saving vaccines, the WHO’s main decision making body has plenty to discuss.
WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed out that the pandemic is not yet over, adding that in just the first hour of the assembly, nearly 1,000 people worldwide will have died from Covid. He called for strong actions to rein in Covid-19, which has already killed more than 3.4 million people globally, and prepare for the next pandemic threats ahead.
Despite a palpable sense of urgency, fears abound that countries will not go far enough. There were disagreements over proposals to boost the WHO’s powers, and to hand it more independence to investigate and sound the alarm about serious health threats.
The general finding was that countries and institutions had been woefully unprepared to deal with the crisis and the panels urged for a total overhaul of the global alarm system. Experts also highlighted the importance of boosting confidence in the WHO’s independence, which has taken a hit as countries have traded blame over the crisis and accused the organization of taking sides. A number of countries are also pushing to start negotiations towards a new international treaty to prepare for the next pandemic and avoid the scramble for vaccines hampering the international Covid response.
The world that is still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic can still improve its response, especially among the poorer and poorly run countries that need all the help they can get from the international community. Moreover, preparations for the next pandemic already have to be in place while most of the world is still focused on recovery. The World Health Organization and the health departments of the entire world need to be given more resources, capabilities and power to coordinate a global response in preventing and responding to pandemics if and when they inevitably occur.*