The viral politics

India was elected chairperson of the executive board (EB) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for a one-year period at its meeting on April 22. The EB consists of the organisation’s 34 member states. It is responsible to ensure that WHO’s secretariat headed by a Director-General fulfils its tasks set out by the organisation’s highest decision making body, the World Health Assembly (WHA), where all its 192 member-countries are represented. As EB’s chairperson India will have a sensitive role at this most difficult time in WHO history; it is mired in controversies because of the manner in which it handled the COVID-19 pandemic especially in the aftermath of its outbreak.

The secretariat’s handling of the issue and DG, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s role have come under very close scrutiny. The United States has accused Tedros of bending backwards to accommodate Chinese concerns by blindly accepting its statements. China has stoutly defended the WHO and Tedros. This difference was also witnessed during the virtual meeting of the WHA held on May 18 and 19. Seven world leaders including French President Macron, German Chancellor Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the summit. US President Donald Trump took the extraordinary step of writing a letter to Tedros which was released to the media.

Communications to heads of UN specialised organisations are at most addressed at the level of ministers. Obviously by taking this step Trump was, firstly, conveying to the American people that he is directly involved in all aspects of the COVID-19 policy and actions and, secondly, that he will continue go after China and its ‘puppet’ WHO for the devastation caused by the pandemic in the US. There is little doubt that COVID-19 and all aspects of its handling by the Trump administration will be the most important issue in this year’s US Presidential elections. The letter is a clear indication that Trump will aggressively deal with it.

Two contentious points arose prior to the WHA meeting. The first related to Taiwan’s participation as an observer while the second concerned US insistence that independent investigations be held regarding the origin of the virus as well as on WHO’s response to it. China was sensitive on both counts but clearly realised that in view of the general global sentiment that it was initially tardy if not obfuscatory it would have to give way on an investigation. It was obviously adamant on the Taiwan’s observer status even though it had allowed its participation on that basis in earlier years.

Member-states postponed the Taiwan issue prior to the meeting and a European Union draft resolution on international COVID-19 in its many aspects was adopted by consensus. It calls for an identification of the “zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population”. It puts the onus on Tedros to cooperate with concerned UN agencies for this purpose. It also asks Tedros to initiate action in consultation with member-stated to have an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the “actions of the WHO”. While both these decisions avoid the extreme positions of the US and China they do not change the reality that these issues will see much divisive play in the months to come and as the EB’s chairperson India will have to navigate tricky waters.

This is evident from the contents of Trump’s letter as well as Xi’s speech to the WHA. Xi stressed that China had acted with “openness, transparency and responsibility”. He praised the WHO and Tedros in particular. While supporting a review of the global response to COVID-19 he added the caveat that it should be after “it is brought under control”. He singled out Africa as requiring greater assistance. He also spelt out all that China would do to help in controlling the pandemic and in helping global economic recovery.

Trump tore into Tedros and China on the initial response to COVID-19 accusing the latter of misleading the world and the former of being an accomplice. Prima facie Trump catalogued facts and inferences impressively to make his case. Interestingly, he also noted some African countries ambassadors to China’s complaint of discriminatory treatment of their countries nationals living in China. This was to rebut the Ethiopian Tedros’s  charge that Taiwan was critical of him because of racist considerations. Finally, Trump gave an ultimatum to Tedros. He wrote that if the WHO “does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of the United States funding to the World Health Organisation permanent and reconsider our membership in the organisation”.

As EB chairperson will India take an active role in intervening between WHO and the US to find a way from Trump moving away from his ultimatum? Despite its disorganised response to COVID-19 and its infirmities in providing health to all its citizens the US has enormous strengths in the medical sphere—in research, prescribing protocols, funding programmes for improving health in developing countries among others. Its walking out of WHO will be a loss to the organisation and to global efforts in the health and medical fields.

Apart from this immediate concern India will have to play role in ensuring that credible enquiries are conducted as mentioned in the WHA resolution. This will put Indian diplomacy to the test. This is because the pandemic has now become an intensely contentious political issue making major power cooperation impossible on it. That would have been ideal but when is the ideal realised in the real world?