Bold New WHO Manifesto Calls For Low Carbon COVID-19 Recovery; European Union Unveils €750 Billion Stimulus Package

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus unveiled a bold new WHO Healthy Recovery Manifesto – including an unprecedented call to governments to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to the tune of US$ 400 bilion annually – driving both climate change, air pollution, and an epidemic of chronic diseases that also sharply increased mortality risks for people infected with COVID-19.

The move coincided with the European Union;s unveiling of a much anticipated Covid-19 recovery plan with a green investment edge. Named Next Generation EU the €750 billion package aims to address the economic and social fallout of the coronavirus pandemic with direct investments in renewable energy technologies and support to countries to shift to low-carbon economies. 

The six WHO-endorsed manifesto principles include oft-repeated calls for healthier cities, food systems, and clean water.  However, WHO’s blunt call to governments to “stop using taxpayers money to fund pollution” steps out of the Organization’s traditional comfort zone. The manifesto also calls for an end to biodiversity destruction and the “unsafe management and consumption of wildlife”, noting that it is these activities that lead to the transmission of deadly animal pathogens such as COVID-19 to humans, and “increase the risk of emerging infectious diseases.”  

These steps, WHO says, will lead towards healthier societies, more resilient to future outbreaks and epidemics. 

The human cost of COVID-19 has been devastating, & the so-called lockdown measures have turned lives upside down,” said Dr Tedros in a press briefing. “But the pandemic has given us a glimpse of what our world could look like if we took the bold steps that are needed to curb climate change and air pollution. Our air and water can be clearer, our streets can be quieter and safer, and many of us have found new ways to work while spending more time with our families.”

Both the WHO and EU proposals were unveiled just a day after over 40 million healthcare workers issued a call to place climate-friendly initiatives at the heart of COVID-19 economic recovery. 

Turn “Immense Challenge into Opportunity”

“The recovery plan turns the immense challenge we face into an opportunity, not only by supporting the recovery but also by investing in our future: the European Green Deal and digitalization will boost jobs and growth, the resilience of our societies and the health of our environment,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in launching the plan

The plan would require all 27 EU member states to back it up with concrete investments. It comes as the bloc faces the prospects of a EU-wide recession. However, Member States have remained divided on whether the plan represents the best way forward.

France, Germany, Spain and Italy have welcomed the package, with French President Emmanuel Macron hailing it “a crucial step”.  But Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden — known as the “frugal four” — have protested the proposal, saying the aid should instead come in the form of low-interest loans. As such, the plan in its current form is unlikely to pass in its current form, given that it does not have unanimous support. 

Climate-Friendly Initiatives Core to in the European Union Plan
Urban pedestrian & green space (Photo: CCAC)

One key pillar of the EU plan is “supporting the green transition to a climate-neutral economy.”  A new “Recovery and Resilience Facility” of €560 billion would offer financial support for investments and reforms focusing on green and digital transitions.

The plan also earmarks €91 billion per year in EU grants and loan guarantees to businesses and households that install green technologies such as rooftop solar panels, building insulation and  heating systems based on renewable energy.

The facility also sets aside €5 billion in guarantees for “green mortgages”, tying low-carbon renovations into property sales, giving schools, hospitals, and social housing the priority.

Other climate-friendly instruments include a proposal to strengthen an EU Just Transition Fund, with up to €40 billion to assist economically weaker Member States in accelerating the transition towards climate neutrality, and a €15 billion injection of funds into the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, to support a trajectory for rural areas to reach climate neutrality.

The plan has been largely praised for centering on climate-friendly initiatives. However, some advocates have criticised the plan for leaving out ocean health initiatives, and other climate NGOs blasted leaked drafts of the plan for being too lenient towards polluting industries such as automakers and fossil fuel.

“The European Commission’s €1.85 trillion recovery plan is contradictory at best and damaging at worst,” said Greenpeace in a statement“It does not solve the problem of existing support for gas, oil, coal, and industrial farming – some of the main drivers of a mounting climate and environmental emergency. The plan also fails to set strict social or green conditions on access to funding for polluters like airlines or carmakers,” the NGO added.

WHO Manifesto For Green COVID-19 Recovery

The bold new WHO manifesto begins with a comment by Dr Tedros on the intimate links that have been laid bare between viral threats and other emergencies, pollution and climate change and wildlife and biodiversity destruction:

“The pandemic is a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet. Any efforts to make our world safer are doomed to fail unless they address the critical interface between people and pathogens, and the existential threat of climate change, that is making our Earth less habitable,”

The  WHO Healthy Recovery Manifesto includes six key principles, described as “prescriptions” for a healthy and green recovery from COVID-19, which include the following key messages:

1) Protect and preserve the source of human health: Nature

“Human pressures, from deforestation, to intensive and polluting agricultural practices, to unsafe management and consumption of wildlife, undermine these services. They also increase the risk of emerging infectious diseases in humans  – over 60% of which originate from animals, mainly from wildlife. Overall plans for post-COVID-19 recovery, and specifically plans to reduce the risk of future epidemics, need to go further upstream than early detection and control of disease outbreaks. They also need to lessen our impact on the environment, so as to reduce the risk at source.”

Pangolin, Manis javanica – harbors coronavirus infections, and is hunted for its meat and scales

2) Invest in essential services, from water and sanitation to clean energy in healthcare facilities

“Around the world, billions of people lack access to the most basic services that are required to protect their health, whether from COVID-19, or any other risk. Handwashing facilities are essential for the prevention of infectious disease transmission, but are lacking in 40 % of households. Antimicrobial-resistant pathogens are widespread in water and waste and their sound management is needed to prevent the spread back to humans. In particular it is essential that health care facilities be equipped with water and sanitation services, including the soap and water that constitutes the most basic intervention to cut transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and other infections, access to reliable energy that is necessary to safely carry out most medical procedures, and occupational protection for health workers.”

3) Ensure a quick, healthy energy transition

“Currently, over seven million people a year die from exposure to air pollution – 1 in 8 of all deaths. Over 90% of people breathe outdoor air with pollution levels exceeding WHO air quality guideline values.  Two-thirds of this exposure to outdoor pollution results from the burning of the same fossil fuels that are driving climate change. Energy infrastructure decisions taken now will be locked in for decades to come. Factoring in the full economic and social consequences, and taking decisions in the public health interest, will tend to favour renewable energy sources, leading to cleaner environments and healthier people. Several of the countries that were earliest and hardest hit by COVID-19, such as Italy and Spain, and those that were most successful in controlling the disease, such as South Korea and New Zealand, have put green development alongside health at the heart of their COVID-19 recovery strategies.”

Solar panels supply energy for hot water at Bertha Gxowa Hospital in Johannesburg. Photo: Health Care Without Harm

4) Promote healthy, sustainable food systems

Diseases caused by either lack of access to food, or consumption of unhealthy, high calorie diets, are now the single largest cause of global ill health. They also increase vulnerability to other risks – conditions such as obesity and diabetes are among the largest risk factors for illness and death from COVID-19. Agriculture, particularly clearing of land to rear livestock, contributes about ¼ of global greenhouse gas emissions, and land use change is the single biggest environmental driver of new disease outbreaks. There is a need for a rapid transition to healthy, nutritious and sustainable diets. If the world were able to meet WHO’s dietary guidelines, this would save millions of lives, reduce disease risks, and bring major reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions.

5) Build healthy, liveable cities

Cycling in Fortaleza, Brazil – the city strengthened its active transport plans as part of the Healthy Cities Partnership

“As cities have relatively high population densities and are traffic-saturated, many trips can be taken more efficiently by public transport, walking and cycling, than by private cars. This also brings major health benefits through reducing air pollution, road traffic injuries – and the over three million annual deaths from physical inactivity. Many of the largest and most dynamic cities in the world, such as Milan, Paris, and London, have reacted to the COVID-19 crisis by pedestrianizing streets and massively expanding cycle lanes – enabling “physically distant” transport during the crisis, and enhancing economic activity and quality of life afterwards.”

6) Stop using taxpayers’ money to fund pollution – halt US$ 400 billion in fossil fuel industry subsidies

“Financial reform will be unavoidable in recovering from COVID-19, and a good place to start is with fossil fuel subsidies.

Globally, about US$400 billion every year of taxpayers money is spent directly subsidizing the fossil fuels that are driving climate change and causing air pollution. Furthermore, private and social costs generated by health and other impacts from such pollution are generally not built into the price of fuels and energy. Including the damage to health and the environment that they cause, brings the real value of the subsidy to over US$5 trillion per year-  more than all governments around the world spend on healthcare – and about 2,000 times the budget of WHO.

Placing a price on polluting fuels in line with the damage they cause would approximately halve outdoor air pollution deaths, cut greenhouse gas emissions by over a quarter, and raise about 4% of global GDP in revenue. We should stop paying the pollution bill, both through our pockets and our lungs.”

New ‘WHO Foundation’ Aims To Raise More Flexible Funding For The World Health Organization
Dr Tedros (left) and Thomas Zeltner (right) sign an MOU between the WHO and the newly established WHO Foundation

Meanwhile, WHO also unveiled a new initiative Wednesday to address some of its own pressing financial problems – triggered by the temporary suspension of funding from the United States as well as by a longer term decline in “assessed contributions” by WHO member states to the Organization. 

The WHO Foundation was launched today to raise funding from the general public and other  “non-traditional sources” for the Organization. The new foundation will give the agency a source of unearmarked income, providing more flexibility in financing WHO’s General Programme of Work. 

“The creation of the foundation represents a truly innovative approach to diversify WHO’s resource mobilization strategy. This new approach is clearly an urgent need,” said WHO Foundation founder and former Swiss Secretary of State for Health Thomas Zeltner.

“One of the greatest threats to WHO success is the fact that less than 20% of our budget comes in the form of flexible assets contributions from Member States,” said Dr Tedros at the press briefing. “For WHO to fulfill its mission and mandate, there is a clear need to broaden our donor base, and to improve both the quantity and quality of funding we receive – meaning more flexibility.”

WHO is one of the few international organizations that, up until now, has no legal channel for receiving donations from the general public, he noted. 

The success of the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund, which has raised more than US $241 million in a few short months, served as a good proof-of-concept for the WHO Foundation, which aims to raise money for a broader, more flexible and more long-term portfolio encompassing all of WHO health programmes.

Currently, almost 80% of the funding that WHO receives comes in the form of voluntary contributions earmarked for specific programmes, according to Dr Tedros. 

“This means that WHO has little discretion over the way it spends almost 80% of its funds,” he explained.

More flexible funding, channeled through the new WHO Foundation, will allow the organization to address some underfunded programmes that have not caught the eye of other large donors. attention. 

“All funding of the WHO Foundation will help implement WHO’s General Programme of Work. On average, between 70-80% of the funds we raise will go directly to the WHO Secretariat. The remaining 20-30% will be used to strengthen public health globally by working with implementing partners of WHO,” said Zeltner.

Still, money raised by the new Foundation is meant to “complement, not supplement” existing resources available to the agency, clarified Zeltner.

The WHO Foundation will be set up as an independent, non-profit organization under Swiss law. A Memorandum of Understanding between the WHO and the WHO Foundation was signed Wednesday by Zeltner and Dr Tedros to set the framework for how the Foundation will collaborate with the agency.

Image Credits: Twitter: @WHO, Wikimedia Commons, Piekfrosch/wikipedia, Health Care Without Harm, FAO/Shutterstock, City of Fortaleza.