Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says there will need to be “improvements” made to the World Health Organization in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as questions about China‘s influence.
But one European global health expert is cautioning current geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and Beijing could make it “incredibly difficult” to achieve real results.
During a daily briefing with journalists on Tuesday, Trudeau was asked about a vote by WHO member states to launch a review into the organization’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic response and about whether countries like China have too much influence on its workings.
“That balance does need to be looked at carefully. There will be real questions about China in the coming months and years that need to be answered, and we will be part of that,” he said.
Shortly afterwards, Trudeau told members of Parliament in a virtual session that “it is clear that there will need to be improvements to the WHO” and other international bodies in the aftermath of the pandemic.
But what those changes could look like isn’t clear and even reaching a consensus on a review of its response could be contentious given the current global tensions between the U.S. and China.
Ilona Kickbusch was a member of the Ebola interim assessment panel which reviewed the WHO’s response to that outbreak in 2014/2015.
She’s now a founding director and chair of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and told Global News that current geopolitical tensions could make it difficult to come to a path forward that will satisfy both the U.S. and China.
“It’s no use to have a committee and let’s say, appoint eight people and then a group of countries says or one country says, ‘I will never trust the outcome of that committee,'” Kickbusch said.
“In this case, you know, if this geopolitical spat goes on, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to actually appoint a committee that everybody is going to agree is truly independent.”
The World Health Organization has faced fierce criticism over recent months for its handling of the pandemic, with critics arguing it relied too heavily on questionable Chinese case data and as a result, wasted valuable time in declaring a global pandemic.
On Monday, the organization finally bowed to calls from member states who demanded the launch of an independent probe into its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to spend $2 billion over the next two years to help other countries fight the coronavirus that first appeared within its borders in December 2019.
That comes after U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily froze American funding to the organization last month, and after he on Monday threatened to reconsider U.S. membership in the WHO unless “substantial improvements” get made, including loosening ties with China.
China, however, is not named in the motion passed by WHO members on Monday.
According to the draft language backed by Canada and more than 100 other member countries, the WHO response will be subject to an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” that takes place at the “earliest appropriate moment.”
The task for that evaluation will be to “review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19,” and report to the next meeting of the World Health Assembly on progress to date when it meets next year.
Kickbusch said if past review bodies are any indication, membership on the new one would likely come from both countries who have successfully countered their own outbreaks, such as South Korea, and regions or countries that were especially impacted by the virus.
Among the areas it could explore will be interviews with the WHO’s top staff, on-the-ground visits, document reviews and meetings with impacted countries, and whether WHO member states lived up to their obligations under the International Health Regulations.
Those are a set of legally binding requirements on each country to have and maintain the public health capacity to protect global health from the spread of diseases.
Those were created in 2005 as part of the global response to improve public health capabilities following the SARS pandemic of 2003/2004, and were cited repeatedly in the Ebola review as not being strong enough. That review also found that not heeding calls to strengthen the rules after the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 likely hurt the ability to respond to the Ebola outbreaks.
They had not yet been updated.
“The review committee of the International Health Regulations came to the conclusion that the IHR did not need to be revised. I think still that was the wrong conclusion because we saw that a number of elements of the IHR did not work well for the present outbreak,” Kickbusch said.
She added there already seems to be an appetite for potential reforms to the systems, including with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“In a way, everyone is ready for reform which is why taking this into a blame culture, into throwing attacks around on one of the countries, on WHO, on an individual like Dr. Tedros, is not really very helpful and constructive.”
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam also weighed in on Tuesday about the review.
She also hinted at the need for member states to look for ways to improve the organization.
“You can’t review just the WHO itself, but how we all intersect within it,” she said.
“The WHO is what we member states make it. We can make it stronger, better as part of our response to future pandemics but there is no doubt that all of us have something to learn.”