Calls grow for WHO to be given more power to deal with pandemics

UK foreign policy experts criticise health body's Covid-19 response as 'dysfunctional at worst'

A medical team transports a COVID-19 patient at the intensive care unit at the Nurse Isabel Zendal Hospital in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
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The World Health Organisation should be given more powers to deal with future pandemics, UK foreign policy experts said on Tuesday.

The warning came amid increasing concern over health nationalism after the EU warned it could block further exports of vaccines produced in the bloc.

Prof Colin McInnes from Aberystwyth University said the WHO was virtually powerless to prevent countries from serving their own interests rather than the global good.

He told MPs it was unsurprising that international co-operation broke down during the pandemic as the WHO had no authority to co-ordinate the overall response to health crises.

“We’re back in a world of nation states protecting their interests,” he told the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The World Health Organisation is an organisation of member states numbering close to 200. Getting them to agree is very difficult.

“Geneva [where the WHO is headquartered] doesn’t even rule the roost – it’s got an international bureaucracy which at its best is less than optimal and at its worst is dysfunctional. The fact it does as well as it does is little short of a marvel.”

Clare Wenham, Assistant Professor of Global Health Policy at the London School of Economics, said the organisation was drastically underfunded and therefore lacked political clout.

“The annual budget of the WHO is [worth] about six days of NHS care,” she said.

“We have to have the WHO at the centre [of the pandemic response]. We need to work out why governments don’t want to work more closely with the WHO and how to embed trust in the institution and the protocols they put out.”

Asked why the EU’s pandemic response had faltered, Ms Wenham said there was a “broader exceptionalism” at play. “

“This isn’t something they’ve faced before,” she said. “I don’t think there was a readiness in the institutions.”