Let’s be honest: is there anyone out there who has faith in the ability of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to tackle a future pandemic? Any lingering hope that the WHO might be an organisation fit to be trusted with global heath concerns has pretty well evaporated with the election, by acclamation, of China as one of the 12 members of its executive board on Friday.
It is true, of course, that an international body must have representation from all over the world if it is going to win the near-universal cooperation it needs in order to operate. It can’t be led entirely by western democracies and wealthy South Asian countries even if they might have the best skills available; you need members able to tap into every culture and religion on Earth. But ought we really be trusting leadership of the WHO to a government which is not merely a malignant dictatorship, accused of human rights abuses against its own citizens – but which has also obstructed an investigation into the high likelihood that it accidentally caused the last pandemic?
The story of how Covid-19 began has been investigated very thoroughly in Alina Chan and Matt Ridley’s excellent book, Viral: the Search for the Origin of Covid-19. If no one has quite pegged down where the virus came from – and probably never will – there is at least a very strong case to answer that it originated in Chinese laboratory experiments aimed at researching how to tackle coronaviruses, and that it entered the population through a laboratory leak. It would hardly be unprecedented for a virus to leak from a laboratory in this way – even if it would make it way and above the world’s most expensive laboratory accident.
What has been China’s response to this possibility? To try to snuff out any investigation into the matter. Bizarrely, a WHO team allowed into China in early 2021, and chaperoned at every turn, tried to dismiss a lab leak, announcing that it would not investigate the matter any further.
It isn’t just China whose presence on the WHO Executive Board will cause alarm. Also on the list is Brazil, whose own parliament has recommended criminal charges against the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, over his handling of the pandemic. Then there is Yemen, which is in the grip of civil war. The only European country on the WHO’s board is Slovakia, which hardly has the greatest political clout and which happens to have had one of the highest deaths rates from Covid-19 anywhere.
If I were drawing up a list of 12 countries for the WHO’s executive board, based on their record during the pandemic, their ability to provide global leadership and on their longer record in public health, their political stability (while ensuring geographical spread), these are the ones which would make my fantasy WHO executive board:
- The UK or France
- Norway, Denmark or Sweden
- The US
- South Korea
- South Africa (for its excellent sequencing of variants)
- Senegal (has been praised for handling pandemic far better than other poor countries)
- Australia or New Zealand
Instead, this is the WHO’s list:
In other words, America and Canada apart, it is stuffed with small countries, many with lousy human rights records, which will not dare to challenge China or which will not have the political clout to do so. The prospects for future pandemics do not look good.