Who holds WHO accountable? | The Listening Post (Feature)
AlJazeeraEnglish | Who holds WHO accountable? | The Listening Post (Feature) ...
Much of the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic treats the World Health Organization (WHO) as an authoritative, impartial source of information. But should it?
From the advent of COVID-19, the WHO's press conferences have been a fixture in global news coverage. They serve as a touchstone for journalists and, given that the WHO has 194 member states, the pressers have become a primary source of information for global context.
"The WHO does shape information globally quite significantly," says Lawrence Gostin, a professor in global health law at Georgetown University who has worked closely with the WHO in the past, "because it is a trusted and objective science adviser to the world".
However, the organisation's objectivity has been called into question. It started in early January when China media analysts started observing a similarity between what the WHO was saying and official statements coming out of China. For example, on January 14, the WHO tweeted: "Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus".
That same day, the Wuhan Health Commission's public bulletin declared, "We have not found proof for human-to-human transmission." The question is, why would the WHO repeat - almost verbatim - the claims made by China when news outlets, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, were already comparing the novel coronavirus to SARS and saying that it could very well be transferred from person to person? The answer comes down to access. China only granted the WHO access to Wuhan in February 2020, nearly three months after the first case was detected.
"WHO's reporting, by virtue of its governance, is highly dependent on every member country's ability, honesty and willingness to share data and issue notifications of epidemics," says Osman Dar, director of the Global Health Programme at Chatham House. "Its verification systems can only be as good as the access their member states provide."
Which is the crux of the issue. Member states are not beholden to the WHO but rather the WHO is beholden to them. Not only is the organisation's access, in large part, determined by its member states, but they also make up most of the WHO's funding.
On April 15, US President Donald Trump threatened to halt his country's funding to the WHO, accusing the organisation of being China-centric. The president's critics say the threat was an attempt to deflect criticism of Trump's own mishandling of this crisis; however, his actions highlight a key vulnerability in the WHO.
The US is, by far, the organisation's biggest funder and if Washington follows through with Trump's threat, then that would severely hinder its operational capacity. Which begs the question - how can the WHO speak truth to power when those powers largely control its access and its funding?
"It's not totally neutral. If you're seeing something coming from the WHO, it's something that its member states wanted to be released, it is something that a member state consented to be released," says Stephen Buranyi, a journalist at The Guardian newspaper, "to see the full picture, you have to go beyond what states are telling it."
Lawrence Gostin - Director, O'Neill Institute, Georgetown University
Osman Dar - Global Health Programme, Chatham House
Stephen Buranyi - Journalist, The Guardian
Rana Mitter - Director, China Centre, Oxford University
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