MPs to WHO: If You Want Pandemic Treaty Implemented, Engage with Us

Parliamentarians from around the world have called on the World Health Organization to engage civil society in the establishment of a “pandemic treaty,” if the organization hopes to have such a document not only ratified but also implemented.

“The current process remains exclusionary,” said Giada Girelli, a senior analyst on human rights and justice at Harm Reduction International, who opened a session on the subject of the treaty at the UNITE Global Summit in Lisbon on Monday. “Members of parliament are not systematically engaged. The conceptual zero-draft continues to have limited details regarding civil society.”

The UNITE session took place as members of the intergovernmental negotiating body (INB) kicked-off their own meeting in Geneva.

Last year, at a special meeting of the World Health Assembly, participants resolved to create an outline for how to manage the prevention, preparedness and response to any future pandemics. The INB was appointed in February to write the first draft.

This draft was presented to member states last month and is being further developed during the current meeting. The expectation is that it will be completed by WHO’s 77th World Health Assembly in May 2024.

But the parliamentarians at the UNITE event said they felt left out of the process, when ultimately it is up to them to pass the legislation to actually implement WHO initiatives and policies, even if governments approve them. Parliamentarians are also generally responsible for budget allocations.

In October, a collaboration agreement was signed between WHO and the UNITE Parliamentarians Network for Global Health to expand outreach to the world’s elected politicians on burning global health priorities. But exactly how this MOU will ultimately play out is still to be determined.

Uruguay MP Luis Enrique Gallo on December 5, 2022
Uruguay MP Luis Enrique Gallo on December 5, 2022

“There is no consensus without the participation of civil society,” stressed Uruguay MP Luis Enrique Gallo. “If you want legislation that brings together all the lessons learned from the pandemic, we have to work with the opinions of states, the opinions of national parliaments, of community leaders, academics, scientists etc.”

Gallo bemoaned that he was only made aware of the pandemic treaty through UNITE and not directly by WHO.

“How is it that I am an MP linked to the health sector for 20 years and I did not know that this was being discussed by the most major health organization in the world?” Gallo asked.

MP Ruth Labode of Zimbabwe on December 5, 2022
MP Ruth Labode of Zimbabwe on December 5, 2022

Another MP, Ruth Labode of Zimbabwe, expressed similar sentiments.

“When I heard about it, I started Googling about the pandemic treaty,” Labode said. “It’s not a bad thing. “But if you ask MPs in this room if they really know about it, the details about it, no one knows.

“The treaty is stuck in Geneva,” she continued. “We have WHO offices in our area. How come no one is talking about it there?”

Gallo said that it is parliamentarians’ jobs to hold their governments accountable and that after some of the mistakes of COVID, the pandemic treaty could be a tough sell.

“There was the COVAX fund and we paid into that fund, but we never got the vaccines,” Gallo said. “They were late. There were not enough. Whatever it was, the end result was not good. We do not want to repeat that.”

Case study: Uruguay

“The COVID-19 pandemic revealed not only the fragility of the national health systems around the world, but the fragility of democratic institutions across the world,” said Georgian MP Mariam Jashi. “Even countries with stronger health systems and older, more established democracies struggled.”

She cited a report by Freedom House, which found that since the start of the pandemic in December 2019, the status of human rights and democracy had deteriorated in more than 80 countries.

Georgian MP Mariam Jashi
Georgian MP Mariam Jashi

Uruguay is a country of only 3.5 million people. According to Gallo, in the first waves, the government managed to implement a strong and successful COVID response.

“There are integrated private and public health sectors so we have equitable access to healthcare,” Gallo explained.

In addition, he added that the health system and civil society leaders were at first brought around the decision-making table and played a key role in COVID-19 crisis management. A team of 50 scientists were recruited to draft recommendations for the executive power and mandates were made based on these.

But overtime, he said, the situation shifted.

In 2020, Uruguay had only 181 people die of COVID-19 or related illnesses. In January, February and March of the next year, 793 people died. The scientists suggested another lockdown of 200 days because infection was rapidly spreading, but their advice was this time ignored. In April there were 1,600 deaths. In May there were 1,800.

“We were once the country that best managed the pandemic and then we were the country with the worst figures in terms of COVID deaths per capita on earth,” Gallo said.

The reason: “There was no longer any social dialogue,” Gallo claimed.

He said, “We need to learn to listen. Decision makers need to learn how to listen and to take into account several opinions. And they need to leave room for the people and organizations that are on the front lines.”

“We have to ensure that MPs are more empowered,” Jashi stressed.

The UNITE Global Summit runs from Dec. 5-7, 2022. Click here for full coverage.
Reporting for this series was supported by UNITE Parliamentarians for Global Health.

Image Credits: Maayan Hoffman.

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