Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Coronavirus: UN health body has to change, says Julie Bishop

Julie Bishop said the WHO’s ­response to COVID-19 was exposing internal weaknesses within the agency. Picture: Jane Dempster
Julie Bishop said the WHO’s ­response to COVID-19 was exposing internal weaknesses within the agency. Picture: Jane Dempster
The global body charged with leading the fight against COVID-19, the World Health ­Organisation, is beset with ­bureaucratic infighting, confusion about its role and is in dire need of reform, former Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop says.
Ms Bishop said the wildly divergent approach taken by different countries to containing the contagion showed there was a lack of global leadership and governance around pandemic control.
“I don’t think the WHO has ­established a clear mandate about whether it’s a standards-type operation or providing frontline health response,’’ Ms Bishop said.


Ms Bishop said the WHO’s ­response to COVID-19, which has now infected more than 665,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 31,000, was exposing internal weaknesses within the agency.
COVID-19 Australian Statistics
The rest of the world
She said the WHO’s regional offices were run like “fiefdoms’’, it did not work as effectively as it should with cashed-up non-government organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and it lacked consistency of funding.
“I think the current pandemic is highlighting the fact that WHO funding is provided on a voluntary basis by states which are currently suffering massive economic ­hardship,’’ she said.
The WHO was created in 1948 as part of the wave of international governance undertaken after World War II. It is part of the UN structure and is largely reliant on voluntary contributions from members.
Its policy direction is determined by its 194 member states.
The organisation has played a central role in pandemic control and was crucial in the eradication of smallpox, but its performance has not been without controversy.
The WHO was criticised for being slow to respond to the 2015 ebola outbreak in Africa.
Lately it has moved into vaguer, more ­aspirational territory, aiming to provide better health coverage to a billion people, protect a billion people against health emergencies and provide a further billion with better health and wellbeing.
From the start of the coronavirus outbreak in January the WHO has tracked the spread of the pandemic and offered daily advice on how to slow its spread.
But Ms Bishop questioned why the world was not seeing a “consistent’’ response to the pandemic.
“That may be because of all sorts of variables, but the way it ­impacts on populations is the same,’’ she said.
Ms Bishop said the WHO could never play a frontline role in healthcare as that would always be the preserve of nations. Instead, it needed to focus on policy and co-ordination.
“There are some who say, why isn’t the WHO involved in frontline delivery? That won’t happen. National governments will never allow it,’’ Ms Bishop said.
“(But) the WHO could have a mandate to assess preparedness for respiratory illness. It could play a much more important co-ordinating role.
“For the WHO to be effective it needs to narrow its mandate to the areas of which it has direct control. That is in setting frameworks of international co-operation and developing models on how to ­respond to disease.”
There was likely to be wholesale reform of global pandemic control when the crisis ends, following criticism over the lack of transparency in some countries.

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