Think Tank Wants To Restructure WHO After Leniency Toward China

April 19, 2021 by Daniel Mollenkamp

WASHINGTON – A non-partisan think tank and registered lobby firm focused on national security and foreign policy issues released a report this week recommending changes to the structure of the World Health Organization, the UN body that coordinates international health work, and calling for an independent UN panel investigation into China and the WHO’s response to COVID-19. 

Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a piece authored by adjunct fellow Craig Singleton, argues that the WHO’s actions have been too lenient on China, which has covered up information about the spread of COVID-19 and also spread misinformation.

This sort of leniency, Singleton argues, is what has tainted the WHO’s response to outbreaks in the past. 

The upshot, he concludes, is that the institution needs reform.

“The anniversary of the first COVID-19 lockdowns came and went, and yet the world remains no closer to understanding the virus’ true origins,” the report said. “Nor is the WHO positioned to respond more effectively to the next global pandemic, which may be only years, not decades, away.”

Singleton recommends, among other structural changes, renegotiating the 2005 International Health Regulations, the main legal document for the WHO, and establishing a “health sanction” for countries for noncompliance. 

The sanctions proposed in the report would tilt international health coordination in favor of western interests, as it would rely on the G7 to impose coordinated sanctions on China for withholding information.

The report also calls for,replacing WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the first director-general from an African country, for concerns over his “objectivity and perceived deference to Beijing.”

Other recommendations made by the report range from earmarking donations for institutional change to outsourcing WHO activities to other stakeholders. The report also wants to reinstate Taiwan’s observer status in the WHO, labeling the country’s exclusion “a clear example of how the organization has prioritized politics over public health.” 

The fact that the U.S. is the single biggest donor to the WHO, followed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, means that the country bears a moral responsibility for the WHO’s “flawed performance,” the FDD report said.

“After the devastation wrought by COVID-19, continued engagement without a serious campaign for WHO reform would be nothing short of diplomatic malpractice,” the report commented.

The vague mandate of the WHO, together with its lack of enforcement mechanisms, primes it for criticism in its attempts to track and coordinate responses to outbreaks. In contrast, the WHO receives praise for its child vaccination efforts, which led to the eradication of smallpox in 1999 as well as a 99% reduction in polio infections, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. 

COVID-19 has given fresh urgency to proposals for health care reform, domestically and internationally. It has also made the WHO a lightning rod for geopolitical maneuvering. As tensions between China and the west have grown, arguments over international political institutions have become fiercer. 

The FDD report picks up on criticisms of the WHO’s reliance on weak enforcement mechanisms, a critique which arose after other outbreaks like the Ebola outbreak.

The WHO attracted especially virulent criticism during the administration of Donald Trump for being too “deferential” to Chinese interests, which coincided with other western skirmishes with China during this time like the trade war and the imposition of retaliatory sanctions. Former President Trump had slashed funding to the WHO and announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the institution, effective in July 2021. President Joseph Biden revoked the order and has stressed a more multilateral approach to diplomacy generally.

In the context of previous criticisms of the WHO’s response to public health crises, which were said to be slow, experts warned that this threatened to further slam the brakes on future responses to public health crises, especially since the majority of the institution’s funding comes from donors who can earmark their donations to specific initiatives. Only 17% of the WHO’s budget comes from mandatory dues, according to a CFR explainer.

Emphasizing the U.S.’s role as the primary funding source for the institution, calls for institutional reform of the WHO persist. At the moment, these concerns center on criticisms over China’s refusal to share data about how the coronavirus started, which they say reveals a troubling lack of transparency. 

Criticism from advisors to the WHO earlier this year caused publishing of the initial results of the WHO investigation into the origins of COVID-19 to be delayed over concerns that researchers were denied access to the proper data to conduct the investigation.

The FDD report, “Diplomatic Malpractice: Reforming the WHO After China’s COVID Cover-up,” can be read here.

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