Credit: US Mission in Geneva

We Should Be Thanking Our Lucky Stars for the World Health Organization Right Now

On Monday, March 2 the director-general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was giving his 22nd press conference on the coronavirus in nearly as many days. The news of the day was grim. The outbreak was spreading fast in Iran and a WHO staff member there had fallen ill. Dr. Tedros, as he is known, had just dispatched a special team to Iran, along with a chartered flight full of medical equipment and test kits to help Iran contain the outbreak.

These frequent press conferences from the World Health Organization have generally been matter-of-fact affairs, with Dr. Tedros and his team of scientists and public health experts providing the latest data and scientific information about the coronavirus, known as Covid-19. But when a journalist asked him about potential discrimination against Iranians in Europe, Dr. Tedros, a longtime Ethiopian health official and diplomat, sounded almost philosophical.

“I remember once —  this was a long time ago,” he recalled. “I was very young there was a lot of destabilization in the world, and someone was asking a question, ‘When do human beings stand as one?’ [and the answer was]: ‘When we have a common enemy from another planet!’

He paused when recalling this anecdote in the press conference, then asked. “Why do we need an enemy from another planet to be one when we have on the same planet a common enemy that could affect us all, equally?”

This kind of appeal for global solidarity in the face of the coronavirus outbreak has been a constant refrain from the World Health Organization, which is coordinating a global response to the fast spreading epidemic.

Since the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the World Health Organization has been at the center of a herculean effort to contain, coordinate, and manage the kind of global cooperation that is required to confront a virus that does not respect national borders.

So far, the World Health Organization has risen to the occasion. But unless governments around the world — including the United States —  step up their support, the WHO may be overwhelmed and the world unable to mount a robust response commensurate to the scale of this emergency.

The UN agency, based in Geneva, is not a huge bureaucracy. It has an annual budget of $2.2 billion, making it roughly on-ninetieth the size of the US Department of Health and Human Services and one tenth the size of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  But in moments like this, the WHO plays an outsized role.

The value of the WHO during the course of the coronavirus outbreak has been evident in three key ways.  First, the WHO’s data collection is providing health officials and policymakers everywhere with constantly updated information, informing their response. This includes the latest information about reported cases from around the world, and also some of the hard science about the virus.

Second, the WHO is leveraging its unique reach to share information about how to prepare for Covid-19 and mitigate its impact. The WHO is a mulit-lateral institution that includes nearly every country on the planet. It is taking advantage of that footprint. In mid-February, the WHO dispatched Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian infectious disease expert, to China. He lead an international team of health officials to get a grounds-eye view of the impact of Covid-19 in China and Beijing’s response. These experts have taken these lessons back to their own countries and regions to prepare for coronavirus. The WHO has also held briefings with African foreign ministers and also with the top UN officials in every country in which there is a large UN presence, including places that are already in the midst of conflict or humanitarian crisis.  

Third, the WHO is actively trying to prevent clusters of infections from taking hold in countries with very weak health systems that lack the capacity to handle an outbreak on its own.  This includes countries in sub-Saharan Africa where transmission of Covid-19 could cause disproportionate damage and be much harder to contain. It is here where Dr. Tedros’ call for global solidarity is potentially most fragile.

On February 2, the WHO released a $61.5 million appeal for additional resources to help it manage its preparedness and response activities through April.  As of March 3rd, donors only had contributed one third of that amount, about $21 million. And the largest donor was not a government — it was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which contributed $9.5 million.

This $61.5 million appeal from the WHO is part of a broader Global Strategic Response Plan that calls for the mobilization of $675 million, most of which will help poorer countries prepare their response to Covid-19.

The United States is typically the largest single donor in situations like this. When the Ebola epidemic took hold in West Africa in 2014, the Obama administration requested from Congress over $6 billion in emergency appropriation, most of which would help countries in West African contain the outbreak. But the Trump administration does not share those instincts. In fact, as the coronavirus outbreak was worsening in February, the White House released a budget request that would cut US funding for the World Health Organization by 52%. 

On March 2nd, the US Agency for International Development announced that it was releasing $37 million from an emergency fund to support preparedness efforts in 25 high-risk countries. This followed an announcement from Germany that it would contribute 50 million euros to the effort; and also from the UN that it would release $15 million from it’s Central Emergency Response Fund. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but the United States and other donors around the world are going to have to dig deeper.

If funding is not quickly provided, Covid-19 could gain a foothold in countries without the capacity to respond on their own. If that happens, the virus could spread indefinitely in countries with weak health systems, creating a persistent reservoir of the virus that could spark global outbreaks for the foreseeable future.

This is where the WHO’s work is most urgent — and where global support for the WHO is more than charity, it’s self interest.