WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a daily briefing in Geneva, March 2020
Li Ye Xinhua / eyevine / Redux

The coronavirus pandemic is perhaps the defining struggle of our era, but the global response to it has stalled over a question of scheduling. The United States and Australia want accountability now: for whoever originated the virus, for China’s initial attempts to cover up the outbreak, and for the World Health Organization’s controversial handling of the pandemic. U.S. President Donald Trump is withholding funds from the already resource-strapped WHO, pending a review of the UN agency’s conduct during the crisis. This week, his administration even blocked a joint commitment by the G-20 to strengthen the WHO’s mandate and arm it with additional resources to coordinate the international fight against the disease.

China, the United Nations, and the WHO all favor accountability later. “Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement on April 14. China’s Foreign Ministry echoed that sentiment a few days later, tweeting that nations facing a pandemic “should assist each other in solidarity and coordination instead of pointing fingers or holding anyone accountable.” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has welcomed a review of his agency’s performance “in due course” but emphasized that the focus now must be on staying united, saving lives, and stopping COVID-19.      

Halting the pandemic that is ravaging much of the world should be everyone’s top priority, but delaying an independent review of national and international responses won’t slow the spread of the disease. Waiting to initiate such an inquiry will only deprive the WHO and its member states of valuable feedback that could help them improve their responses and save lives. Waiting will also inhibit international cooperation at the G-7, G-20, and other global institutions whose efforts are needed to develop and equitably deploy COVID-19 drugs and vaccines, remove the export bans and other disruptions to the global supply chain for masks and personal protective equipment, and ultimately, get the global economy growing again. Without a credible independent review at the multilateral level, individual states will likely organize their own inquiries, which could further politicize the pandemic and heighten international tensions.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

Trump’s attacks on the WHO and China may well be intended to distract from his administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic, but moderate Republicans and even a few Democrats have echoed elements of his criticism. Some foreign leaders have also found fault with the international response to the coronavirus and the WHO’s response, in particular. Citing what he described as the agency’s overly cozy relationship with Beijing, Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso dubbed the WHO the “Chinese Health Organization.” Other critics allege that the WHO was too deferential to China in the early days of the outbreak and failed to alert the world as quickly as it should have. These allegations are contested, but they have persisted. Australia, for example, has joined the United States in calling for an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the virus, including what the WHO did to stop it.  

As the pandemic takes a heavier toll on low- and middle-income countries in the coming weeks, the shortcomings of national and multilateral public health systems will be on full, painful display.

Yet the pandemic has exposed problems that extend far beyond China and the WHO. Many nations, including high-income countries, such as Italy, Spain, and the United States, displayed an astonishing lack of preparedness for an outbreak on the scale of COVID-19. These failures can’t be blamed on the WHO. The sorry state of country-level preparedness has contributed to harmful political and public health decisions, including the imposition of controversial travel bans and export restrictions on scarce medical supplies. Rich nations have turned inward and battled one another for resources, leaving the poorest nations to fend for themselves. As the pandemic takes a heavier toll on low- and middle-income countries in the coming weeks, the shortcomings of national and multilateral public health systems will be on full, painful display.

Rather than allowing the pandemic to divide them, states and international organizations need to come together to tame the coronavirus and resurrect the global economy. Doing so will require a political strategy that both meets the immediate public health demands of fighting the pandemic and begins the needed assessment of this epochal global health crisis.

USEFUL ANSWERS

A concerted strategy should bring about the end of this pandemic and better prepare the world for the next one, at the level of both countries and international organizations. To that end, the UN secretary-general should establish—with the backing of major regional organizations, such as the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the European Union—an interim, independent review of the COVID-19 response. The aim should be to establish facts that can aid the fight against this disease and future ones.

Interim assessments have proved beneficial during previous outbreaks. The WHO’s performance in the early days of the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa was disastrous, but member states didn’t abandon or defund the agency; they rightly concluded that its emergency functions needed to be assessed, reformed, and strengthened—not undermined. Even as the Ebola outbreak still raged, WHO member states adopted a resolution establishing an assessment panel of independent outside experts. The panel examined all aspects of the WHO’s response to the outbreak, including the compliance of member states with the International Health Regulations, the treaty that governs pandemic prevention, detection, and response.

The panel’s interim assessment of the Ebola response informed a major organizational overhaul at the WHO. The agency created the Health Emergencies Program, strengthening its scientific, medical, and public health capabilities in anticipation of serious outbreaks of infectious disease. Because of these reforms, the WHO was better able than it otherwise would have been to respond to COVID-19: the agency is now advising ministries of health through its country offices and supplying working test kits, masks, and personal protective equipment to low-income countries upon request. Where needed, it is deploying doctors and scientists to countries with weak health systems to help them control the virus.

An interim assessment of the COVID-19 pandemic response could help the WHO and national governments make important adjustments in real time. Because of concerns about its independence, the WHO should not organize the review, however. As a member-state-driven organization, the WHO is constrained in its ability to assess countries’ responses and publicize their shortcomings. For this reason, the UN secretary-general should authorize a review by an independent, high-level panel of outside experts.

That panel should begin work as soon as possible so that the lessons and best practices it identifies can inform the coronavirus response as it unfolds. The UN secretary-general should appoint a COVID-19 special envoy to support the panel’s work across the multilateral system and with individual countries. The envoy should report to the secretary-general, rather than the WHO, as he or she works with governments, troubleshoots problems, and provides information and advice to the panel. Finally, a blue-ribbon scientific advisory committee should support the panel with published reports on technical matters. 

A credible, science-based independent review process may not be enough to convince all governments and their leaders to prioritize defeating the coronavirus over political point scoring. But such a review can still improve pandemic response both now and in the future. It can also force the nations currently attacking the WHO to back up their rhetoric with credible reform proposals. Calling those attackers’ bluff might be the first step toward a more cooperative international approach to the coronavirus. If there was ever a need for coordinated global action, it is now.

  • THOMAS J. BOLLYKY is Director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World Is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways. Follow him on Twitter @TomBollyky.
  • DAVID P. FIDLER is Adjunct Senior Fellow for Cybersecurity and Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations and Visiting Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @D_P_Fidler.
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