Ahmed Shah on COVID-19: The World Health Organization has let us all down
Countries often have a pandemic response plan that is implemented once a pandemic is declared. But the WHO was left arguing over the semantics of its definition, which delayed these plans being put into action
(nationalpost)—The coronavirus is winning and we are losing. It has strangled the world’s economy and put enormous strain on global health resources, leaving governments scrambling to figure out the best containment strategies. News of physicians in Italy and Spain having to make gut-wrenching decisions to choose one patient over another, while physicians in New York consider a universal do-not-resuscitate order for COVID-19 patients, exemplifies the horror of the situation. And much of the blame for why we find ourselves in this current mess can be placed on a failure of leadership at the World Health Organization (WHO).
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, is the first person to hold the position who doesn’t have a medical degree. He is touted for his successes when he served as Ethiopia’s minister of health from 2005 to 2012. But people often forget that he was a politician. He was Ethiopia’s foreign minister from 2012 to 2016, before being elected to lead the WHO in 2017. He was also a member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that came to power in 1991 after a bloody civil war.
To be fair, during his time as minister of health, there was a modest reduction in Ethiopia’s infant mortality rate and he played a positive role in the global fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. However, his tenure was also plagued by scandals. While running to lead the WHO, Tedros was accused by David Nabarro, a medical doctor and prominent global health expert from the United Kingdom, of covering up three cholera epidemics during his time as health minister, which Tedros passed off as cases of “acute watery diarrhea.”
With this historical context in mind, let’s re-examine Director General Tedros’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He praised the Chinese Communist party’s handling of the situation, even as doctors like Li Wenliang were being arrested for warning about the epidemic and as people were being welded in quarantine camps through draconian measures. He also opposed the travel restrictions placed on China, declaring them to be discriminatory. He delayed declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, and finally yielded when it had infected over 116 countries.
Countries often have a pandemic response plan that is implemented once a pandemic is declared. But the WHO was left arguing over the semantics of its definition, which delayed these plans being put into action. A prime example of the WHO’s ineptitude was when CNN decided to declare the coronavirus a pandemic on March 9, two days before the WHO.
The WHO is supposed to advocate for patient health, warn governments of potential threats and demand action, not downplay potential global catastrophes, which is what it appears to have done.
In a globalized, interconnected and interdependent world, it is crucial that we hold organizations like WHO accountable and demand reforms. Currently, a short list of candidates for the position of director general is selected by an executive board that, in turn, is appointed by rotating minority of World Health Assembly, which is made up of representatives from WHO member states. So a director general of the WHO is the appointee of an appointee of an appointee who may or may not have come to power legitimately. Such is the state of WHO’s leadership.
To expect the WHO to modify its selection process seems a little naive. But let us pray that the next WHO director general will at least have a medical degree.
Dr. Ahmed Shah is a resident-physician at McMaster University and a graduate of the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine.