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The World Health Organization has set up a committee to consider changing the rules on declaring an international health emergency following criticism of its COVID-19 pandemic response.

The WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) over the new coronavirus on January 30, when the respiratory disease had infected fewer than 200 people outside China and had claimed no lives beyond its borders. It has faced accusations, notably from Washington DC, of mishandling the pandemic, and waiting too long to sound the alarm.

Under current International Health Regulations (IHR) governing preparedness and response for health emergencies, there are no lower, intermediate levels of alarm beneath a full PHEIC, either on a global or regional scale. Now the WHO will set up a review committee into the global regulations to see whether changes should be made.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that even before the coronavirus pandemic, emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo had exposed flaws in the IHR.

Several countries have also called for a more nuanced system, for example with three levels of alert, or regional alarms.
Tedros hopes the committee that is composed of independent experts will present a report to the World Health Assembly – the WHO’s decision-making body made up of member states – in November, and a full report to the assembly in May.

Much of the world was caught flat footed by the COVID-19 outbreaks and pandemic and if an improved public health emergency warning system had been in place, the responses of today’s most affected nations might’ve been different. Any improvements the WHO can make to this system that has proven to be critical in today’s world will be appreciated by public health experts and the decision makers who have to establish the appropriate strategies and marshal their countries resources as soon as future outbreaks or pandemics are detected.

Countries like the Philippines where it is possible for government appointees to have no idea of the job they accepted will need organizations like the World Health Organization to improve its systems so executives that who have no clue on what should be done during extraordinary events can just follow the instructions.*


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October 2020