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WHO: Comfortably Numb?

The WHO has faltered in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. The politics played, with China backed WHO DG Tedros Adhanom felt comfortably numb during the initial stage of the outbreak in China. Amid the crisis, POONAM KHETRAPAL SINGH, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, spoke with BW’s MANISH KUMAR JHA. The response was bureaucratic and unanswered.

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India will be leading as the chairperson of the WHO’s EB in May. Amid the outbreak and questions over the WHO’s handling the crisis, what would you like to put forth? 

The WHO’s Executive Board (EB) comprises of 34 members, elected for three-year terms. In the annual Board meeting, in January, the members agreed on the agenda for the World Health Assembly. A  second meeting takes place in May, as a follow-up to the Health Assembly. The main functions of the Board are to implement the decisions and policies of the WHA, and advise and generally facilitate its work.  As the term of Sri Lanka expires in May 2020, the 11-Member countries of the Region proposed nomination of India as a member of EB. The 147th session of the EB is scheduled to take place virtually on 22 May 2020. The deliberations at WHA and EB are both led and driven by the Member States. The Covid-19 may be among the principal issues.

WHO has mobilised a coalition of scientists, researchers and recently held a meeting with vaccine manufacturers and national regulatory authorities from its SE Asia Region. What is the latest report on the effort? 

Researchers around the world are working hard on accelerating the development of vaccines and therapeutics for the Covid-19. The WHO has launched working groups to accelerate various aspects of vaccine development. Together with global health actors and partners, the WHO launched Access To Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, a global collaboration to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. Over 100 vaccines are in development globally, including eight in clinical evaluation, and several therapeutics are in clinical trials. The WHO is committed to ensuring that as medicines and vaccines are developed, they will be shared equitably.

What is your take on the steps taken by India to mitigate the outbreak? India’s public expenditure on health is just 1.28% compared to global average of 6.3%. What do you advise? 

India has taken early and aggressive measures, led by the highest leadership. The country has adopted whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to respond to the Covid-19, much needed to respond to a pandemic like outbreak.

We are also aware of the challenges in India. However, we are encouraged by its robust response as well as achievements in recent past against diseases such as polio. This instills confidence that India can once again overcome these challenges.

For the lack of transparency and ambiguity over the data from China on Covid -19, there is a proposal whether WTO should be given powers to investigate the cause of an outbreak in the country of origin? How do you look at such proposition? Will India take it up during the leadership?  

The issues raised by member countries at the WHO governing body meetings are their decisions. As for investigations, the WHO has a culture of assessing its work through an after-action review process and we are looking forward to carrying out the assessment on the Covid-19 response. But for now, our focus is on fighting the outbreak and saving lives.