The World Health Organisation is the best positioned to initiate a joint effort, but it says member states are not forthcoming with data.

The Covid-19 pandemic has killed nearly 7,500 people to date, affecting more than 150 different countries. 

There is clearly a common invisible enemy to fight together, but who will lead the charge against the global pandemic?

Apparently that force is the World Health Organisation (WHO), a UN agency, which has so far been a marginalised force, unfortunately. The UN has earned a reputation for its failures in the face of countless wars and other regional conflicts - the Iraq war, Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Kashmir conflict serve as a few examples.

However, the WHO’s mandate and power is directly tied to the member countries' willingness to support its policies and comply with its guidelines. Without individual countries’ support and compliance, the WHO can not enforce its own policies. 

Last week, the agency’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, demanded the international community form a global front to “change the course of this pandemic”.

But his call fell on deaf ears. 

“One of the biggest challenges we face is that too many affected countries are still not sharing data with WHO,” Ghebreyesus complained. 

The WHO is also short of funding to respond to the outbreak. While the international body needs $675 million to finance its programmes to fight the coronavirus crisis, member states had promised less than half of that money up until last week. 

Without enough data and money, it will be near impossible for the WHO to create a joint global front against the expanding pandemic. 

Passengers wear protective suits, amid the outbreak of coronavirus, at Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong, China March 17, 2020.
Passengers wear protective suits, amid the outbreak of coronavirus, at Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong, China March 17, 2020. (Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

US-China duel over coronavirus

Instead of sharing their respective data with the WHO and funding it adequately, the two biggest economies, the US and China, also influential donors to the world’s biggest health body, are busy scapegoating each other over the pandemic, a signal that politics will precede a joint solution.  

“The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese virus. We will be stronger than ever before!” US President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday

Before Trump blamed Beijing for the virus, some Chinese commentators had accused the US military as being the origin of the pandemic. The Chinese foreign ministry also appeared to approve the account of the commentators, which has been dismissed as a conspiracy theory by others. 

On Tuesday, after Trump’s accusation, the Chinese foreign ministry was not in a good mood at all, advising Washington “first take care of its own business” and not stigmatise China.

“We express strong indignation and firm objection to it. We urge the US to correct its mistake and stop its groundless accusations against China," said Geng Shuang, the foreign ministry’s spokesman. 

US President Donald Trump holds a news briefing on the coronavirus outbreak while accompanied by members of the coronavirus (COVID-19) task force at the White House in Washington, US, March 16, 2020.
US President Donald Trump holds a news briefing on the coronavirus outbreak while accompanied by members of the coronavirus (COVID-19) task force at the White House in Washington, US, March 16, 2020. (Leah Millis / Reuters)

The first coronavirus cases were reported in Wuhan in the central Chinese province of Hubei in December. 

As the pandemic spreads across the globe, the deaths outside of China are exceeding the deaths inside the world’s most populous country. In total the cases (including those that have recovered), now stand at over 188,000 worldwide, with more than 100,000 cases reported outside China. 

While the two most powerful countries continue to play the blame game, the WHO, whose slow response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been criticised in the past, appears to be doing a better job this time than in the previous SARS and Ebola epidemics. 

The WHO quickly declared it a global emergency, constantly feeding the public with new developments regarding the growing pandemic. It has also called up more than 300 scholars and donors to facilitate a scientific ground to develop tests, vaccines and medicines. 

Border shutdowns and travel restrictions

One major sign that the international community is not acting as a whole against the pandemic can be seen in its travel restrictions and border shutdowns, which can slow international help to the needed, and delay aid efforts. 

Despite the WHO’s stance, which urges nations not to restrict travelling and closing borders, many nations including the US have decided to ban international travel. Even the European Commission recommended a 30-day restriction, which has never been carried out in the history of the union, on unnecessary trips to the EU. 

Portuguese police officers check a car at the border between Portugal and Spain, following an order from the Spanish government to set up controls at its land borders over coronavirus, in Vilar Formoso, Portugal, March 17, 2020.
Portuguese police officers check a car at the border between Portugal and Spain, following an order from the Spanish government to set up controls at its land borders over coronavirus, in Vilar Formoso, Portugal, March 17, 2020. (Rafael Marchante / Reuters)

In 2005, the WHO developed a worldwide framework to address pandemics in the wake of the SARS outbreak. According to new international health regulations, states need to report to the WHO about both their health measures and their reasoning to take those actions in 48 hours. 

Most countries facing the coronavirus outbreak have not fulfilled their pledges, leaving WHO officials in limbo as they declare travel restrictions and other national health measures unilaterally. As an international organisation, the WHO has no power to enforce its guidelines over sovereign nations.

A WHO spokesman publicised the organisation’s political limits saying that it “cannot compel countries to change measures they have implemented” as Ghebreyesus, the WHO head, confined himself to sending warning letters to signatory nations to comply with their pledges. 

According to the WHO, the restrictions will only compound social and economic troubles.

But nations prioritising their own citizens’ interests think that the restrictions are one of the best methods to prevent the outbreak from spreading further within their own countries. 

Last week, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries came together in a video conference to discuss the pandemic. 

But during the meeting, some leaders appeared to have greater interest in engaging in political debate than addressing health issues. In the end, the meeting didn't appear to achieve anything.

Source: TRT World