United States Appears To Walk Back on Threats To Withdraw from World Health Organization – Calls For Countries To Adopt ‘Roadmap for Reform’ 
The 5th Special Session of the WHO Executive Board – hybrid virtual and face-to-face meeting

The United States appears to be walking back on threats to withdraw from the World Health Organization – just as US President Donald Trump is reported to be recovering from a bout with COVID-19 in Washington, DC. 

Speaking at the first formal meeting of WHO’s Executive Board governing body to be convened since May, US Assistant Secretary for Health, Brett Giroir, said that the US had developed a “roadmap for WHO reform” together with other members of the Group of 7 industrialized nations, suggesting that the US would be pushing for uptake of those  measures within the global health organization – rather than pulling out altogether.    

“The United States working closely with G7 partners, developed a roadmap for WHO  reform, which I shared with my fellow executive members in August,” said Giroir in his remarks today at the meeting of the 33- WHO member states that guide key policy directions.

“The roadmap outlines opportunities to strengthen the WHO by increasing its accountability, transparency and overall effectiveness, as well as promoting our shared accountability to one another to address new and emerging threats. Germany and France jointly provided a paper also along these lines, and we understand Chile, also has recommendations.” 

In his remarks, Giroir made one pointed, albeit indirect reference to alleged Chinese “failure” to report earlier on the virus spread – but in a departure from the heated anti-China rhetoric coming from the White House, he did not call out Beijing by name.

US Deputy Secretary of Health, Brett Giroir, speaking at a special session of the WHO Executive Board, 5 October 2020.

“Despite the many advances in technology, international cooperation and instantaneous communication, and the positive steps in response outlined this morning,… we cannot overcome the failure of any member state to provide accurate, complete and timely information on outbreaks and potential health emergencies,” Giroir said. 

The balance of his remarks stressed the common goals shared with other WHO member states going forward in beating back the pandemic.

“We also all share the same goal of reforming the WHO, fighting COVID-19 and defeating future outbreaks,” said Giroir. “The US welcomes all good faith efforts to strengthen public health protections, and we hope we can use this special session. To begin, converting these many good ideas, actions. 

“Consistent with our longstanding policy, the United States will be promoting reforms that strengthen transparency and accountability at every international organization, including the WHO.”  

Austria, Brazil and Others Echo Reform Calls  

An assortment of other high-income countries also joined into the US calls for reform – with a range of statements. 

Austria praised “the good and early reaction of WHO.. whoever says different is far from the facts, and believes in fake conspiracies.” But the Austrian representative, Clemens Martin-Auer, also complained that there had been “no global leadership when it comes to the many aspects of travel regimes and restrictions that is hurting commerce and the travel industry in many respects. We have no proper guidance of this valuable organization.”

And while he praised WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus for doing an “extraordinary job when it comes to information” he pointedly added that “information is not a substitute for consultation,” saying that the organization’s “governing bodies” such as the Executive Board, could have been consulted more.  

In an obvious swipe at the United States, Martin-Auer added: “In addition to the health crisis, we are also facing a weakening of the organization. This political weakening is further reinforced by the potential withdrawal of a strong WHO Member State from the organization, which means a serious loss of organizational resources.”

Maria Nazareth Farani Azevêdo, Brazilian representative to the United Nations in Geneva

In their remarks, a number of other leading countries signaled their readiness to cooperate with the US ‘reform’ initiative. Brazil, for its part, said it was ready to “engage with other interested member states in a reform process of the WHO, on the basis of the roadmap circulated by the United States in collaboration with G-7 partners.”

And yet others, sidestepped criticism of WHO altogether, preferring to focus on the importance of maintaining a strong WHO leadeship role.  

“Our duty is to demonstrate that protecting the health of the people, makes good economic sense. We need a strong WHO to lead us forward,” said Dr Päivi Sillanaukee, Finland’s representative to the Executive Board. 

Meanwhile, India and Kenya called for a stronger WHO, with more transparent decision-making and better equity in access to vaccines and medicine. “It must be our collective endeavor to make the WHO accountable, stronger, and a more vibrant organization in the interest of our future generations,” said the Indian representative. “The WHO must also put in place a robust mechanism to ensure fair, affordable, equitable access to vaccines diagnostics, and therapeutics.”

The WHO Says Just Three Countries Hold More Than Half of All COVID-19 Cases
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO.

In WHO’s opening remarks Monday morning before the EB governing body, WHO Director General Tedros pointedly noted that while “all countries have been affected by the virus, this is an uneven pandemic.”

“Just 10 countries account for 70% of all reported cases and deaths, and just three countries account for half,” Dr Tedros said. Although he didn’t call out the countries by name, the United States, India, and Brazil have together have had the largest cumulative totals, racking up nearly 19 million of the 35.3 million COVID-19 cases reported to date.

He outlined what he described as the four situations that countries are facing:

“First, some countries acted decisively and quickly and have avoided large outbreaks. Second, some countries have had large outbreaks but were able to bring them under control, and continue to suppress the virus. Third, while some countries brought the virus under control, as economies and societies have eased restrictions, there has been an increase in cases. And fourth, there are still some countries that are in the intense phase of transmission.”

But the virus is highly dynamic, he emphasized, meaning that “every situation can be turned around. And hard-won gains can be easily lost.”

World map representing COVID-19 deaths per 1 million population globally.
Shock Over Sexual Abuse Allegations in Democratic Republic of Congo

While most of the all-day session, which continues tomorrow, was devoted to reviews of the progress and challenges related to pandemic response, some countries, such as the United Kingdom, also expressed their dismay over the recent allegations of sexual exploitation among members of the WHO Ebola team that had been based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

“Like others we were shocked to hear the recent allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against who and other organizations fighting Ebola in DRC. We welcome to DDS commitment to investigate these allegations and to ensure who safeguarding systems are for the offenses,” said the United Kingdom’s representative, Chris Whitty.  

-Raisa Santos and Madeleine Hoecklin contributed to this story.

Image Credits: WHO.

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