Despite former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal announcement in 2020, the United States remains an active member of the World Health Organization. America is also the organization’s largest donor, giving more than $850 million biennially.
Throughout the pandemic, the U.S. has clashed with the organization over travel bans, vaccine inequality, and the investigation into Wuhan’s virology lab.
“It’s been chaotic,” said Dr. Kelley Lee, a global health expert who has consulted for the WHO for more than 30 years. “It’s not the way it should have been. It’s not the way the organization was designed. And the way member states interacted with the WHO during this pandemic has been unprecedented in the sort of tensions that we’ve seen.”
Dr. Lee said, pandemic aside, there’s a lot of necessary work that the WHO does under the radar. The organization is tasked with creating universal names for diseases and variants. The WHO also tracks health trends to build global databases. Additionally, the WHO coordinates international healthcare efforts and has been credited with the development of an ebola vaccine, the eradication of smallpox, and the near eradication of polio.
But the organization isn’t without limitations. The WHO can engage in diplomacy but maintains no legal authority.
“You can read it as global health diplomacy in action, or you can see it as kind of a toothless organization that isn’t able to get its member states to act accordingly,” Dr. Lee said.
During the pandemic, not all of the WHO’s 192 countries, or member states, have been willing to comply with its global protocols. The United States enforced travel bans and vaccine boosters despite condemnation from WHO leadership. And China, also a member state, has ignored calls for transparency surrounding its COVID-19 case numbers and Wuhan lab research. But there is little the WHO can do.
“WHO can ask and ask again. But it cannot, you know, walk into a country and demand and slam its fist on the table or just call out their government for not doing that. There’s no enforcement mechanism. There’s no kind of committee that it can punish a government for not complying,” said Dr. Lee.
The organization also has funding constraints, relying mostly on member donations.
“The organization’s very poorly funded. It has, you know, a budget that’s really comparable to a medium sized hospital…And those resources are stretched very thin across many, many areas of work. I always often describe it as from AIDS to Zika, because there’s everything in between. So it could do more for sure. But it needs resources to do that, and it needs authority.”
Despite the apparent needs and flaws within the organization, Dr. Lee said the world needs the World Health Organization…but with a caveat.
“We need to kind of maybe rename it a ‘Global Health Organization’. Have a fresh start, give it more resources, give it more authority…Going back to your first question, Yes, we still needed WHO, but I don’t know if we need the organization as it is now,” Lee said.
Gwen Baumgardner: SINCE THE START OF THE PANDEMIC, THE UNITED STATES HAS BEEN PUBLICLY AT ODDS WITH THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION.
FIRST, THREATENING TO WITHDRAW MEMBERSHIP AND FUNDING.
Donald Trump: “We will today be terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization.”
Baumgardner: THEN, clashing OVER TRAVEL BANS, VACCINE INEQUALITY, AND THE WHO’S INVESTIGATION OF THE WUHAN LAB.
Reporter / Jen Psaki: “It’s not sufficient” “We agree. It lacks crucial data, information.”
Baumgardner: DESPITE ALL THAT – THE UNITED STATES REMAINS THE ORGANIZATION’S LARGEST DONOR.
BUT DOES THAT STILL MAKE SENSE? DO WE NEED THE WHO?
LET’S GET THIS STRAIGHT.
THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION IS A UN AGENCY THAT REPRESENTS 192 COUNTRIES, WITH A MISSION TO ‘give everyone, everywhere an equal chance to live a healthy life’.
IT’S A PRETTY LOFTY GOAL…NOT EVERYONE BUYS INTO.
Dr. Kelley Lee: “This is the dilemma that WHO has… You can read it as global health diplomacy in action, or you can see it as kind of a toothless organization that isn’t able to get its member states to act accordingly.”
Baumgardner: THAT’S GLOBAL HEALTH EXPERT DR. KELLEY LEE, WHO’S COLLABORATED AND CONSULTED FOR THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION OVER THE PAST 30 YEARS.
SHE CALLS THE PANDEMIC RESPONSE ‘CHAOTIC’, BUT EMPHASIZES IT’S ONLY ONE FACET OF THE ORGANIZATION.
THE WHO HAS DONE A LOT OF GOOD DURING ITS 73 YEAR HISTORY…FROM THE DEVELOPMENT OF AN EBOLA VACCINE TO SMALLPOX ERADICATION, TO the NEAR ERADICATION OF POLIO.
ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS- THE ORGANIZATION DOES WHAT COUNTRIES WOULD STRUGGLE TO DO INDEPENDENTLY: CREATING UNIVERSAL NAMEs FOR DISEASES, TRACKING HEALTH TRENDS, BUILDING A GLOBAL DATABASE, AND COORDINATING INTERNATIONAL HEALTHCARE EFFORTS.
IT’S A HEAVY LIFT WITH SOME SERIOUS LIMITATIONS.
THE FIRST IS ENFORCEMENT. THE WHO has DIPLOMACY, but NO LEGAL AUTHORITY.
WE’VE SEEN THIS THROUGHOUT THE PANDEMIC. LIKE THEIR CONDEMNATION OF TRAVEL BANS… THAT AMERICA ENFORCED ANYWAY.
OR THEIR PERCEIVED LENIENCY TOWARD CHINA…WHOSE TRANSPARENCY ABOUT COVID NUMBERS AND PANDEMIC’S ORIGIN IS MURKY AT BEST.
Dr. Lee: “WHO can ask and ask again. But it cannot, you know, walk into a country and demand and slam its fist on the table or just call out their government for not doing that. There’s no enforcement mechanism. There’s no kind of committee that it can punish a government for not complying.”
Baumgardner: ANOTHER ISSUE IS FUNDING. THE ORGANIZATION RELIES HEAVILY ON DONATIONS. AND DESPITE SERVING THE WORLD, THEIR BUDGET IS ROUGHLY A THIRD OF THE CDC’S.
WHICH BEGS THE QUESTION…WHY HAVE THE WHO IF AMERICA HAS ITS OWN PUBLIC HEALTH AGENCY?
Dr. Lee: “The CDC is probably the most, one of the most established public health organizations. But unfortunately, not every country has a CDC. So we do need to, you know, create an organization that kind of serves that purpose for other countries that have less capacity.”
Baumgardner: AKA- IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT US. AND WITHOUT A GLOBAL ORGANIZATION…THE INEQUALITIES BETWEEN RICH AND POOR NATIONS WOULD BE EVEN MORE STARK.
AND IF A WORLDWIDE PANDEMIC HAS TAUGHT US ANYTHING, IT’S THAT DISEASES KNOW NO BORDERS – AND WHAT HAPPENS AROUND THE WORLD HAS A DIRECT IMPACT RIGHT HERE (point) IN THE US.
HOWEVER ‘CHAOTIC’ SOME BELIEVE THE PANDEMIC RESPONSE HAS BEEN, WITHOUT A WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION…TRACKING COVID TRENDS AND FACILITATING A GLOBAL VACCINE ROLLOUT WOULD’VE BEEN EVEN MORE DIFFICULT.
SO, DO WE NEED THE WHO? DR. LEE SAYS YES, BUT WITH A CAVEAT.
Dr. Lee: “We need to kind of maybe rename it a Global Health Organization, have a fresh start, give it more resources, give it more authority and just realize the world is much more integrated than it was after the Second World War. Going back to your first question when Yes, we still needed WHO, but I don’t know if we need the organization as it is now.
Baumgardner: DO YOU AGREE?
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