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Investigation into WHO handling of COVID-19 pandemic critical

Thursday, May 21, 2020

We are relieved that the United Nation's World Health Organization (WHO) has agreed to launch an independent evaluation of how it managed the international response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

It is our firm belief that such an evaluation is critical, and that is not just because of the contretemps between the United States and China over the origin of the virus which has, to date, claimed over 326,000 lives and sickened over 4.9 million people globally.

There are multilateral institutions which are indispensable because their mission and remit can only be handled by international cooperation and coordination. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is one such essential international service.

The organisation remains indispensable because the current pandemic is not yet over, could recur, and may be here for several years. In any event, there have always been pandemics and they appear to be happening more frequently and spreading more rapidly in our globally connected world.

The current COVID-19 pandemic can only be effectively controlled by a global campaign in which all countries have to play their part. It is not a viable option to isolate from the rest of world and live as a hermit.

A virus anywhere in the world is a potential global pandemic, and no country can be an oasis of good health in splendid isolation and immune from such pandemic. The world has learnt that terrible, yet valuable lesson from the Spanish Flu, AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS, H1N1, and the Influenza virus.

At a time when the WHO should be fully resourced and charged up to lead the world out of COVID-19, there is controversy which could cause a weakening of the organisation and loss of financial support.

Questions are being raised by some countries, including the United States, about whether WHO's warning system for alerting the world to outbreaks is adequate, and suggesting that member states might need to “reassess” its role in providing travel advice to countries.

The US Administration, in particular, has claimed that the WHO criticised a US travel ban on people arriving from China in the early days of the outbreak.

We, of course, note that Professor Winston Davidson of the School of Public Health and Health Technology, at the University of Technology, Jamaica, has congratulated the “WHO and its professional and technical experts for its indefatigable scientific, evidence-based, data-driven, fact-based, peer-reviewed scientific work”, in a letter to the editor in Tuesday's edition of the newspaper.

However, while this may be true, we believe that the “comprehensive evaluation” sought by a coalition of African, European, and other countries at this week's WHO General Assembly is on point.

There are legitimate questions that require credible answers on the efficacy and timelines of the WHO's response to the outbreak, and to provide insights into lessons learnt for future use from its coordination of the global response to COVID-19.

We expect that the outcome of the evaluation would clear the way for strengthening of the WHO as it continues its invaluable work on behalf of all mankind.