When will the WHO acknowledge its Covid policy failures?
The organisation missed another opportunity at this week’s UN summit.
This week world leaders approved a new political declaration to combat future pandemics at the UN General Assembly in New York City.
In the aftermath of Covid, the document’s 49 theses range from lofty ideals of global health solidarity to a shopping list of investments and actions, all composed in the elegant language of technocratic governance.
Front and centre were calls to strengthen the authority and financing of the World Health Organization, including through a revision of the International Health Regulations (IHRs) and a new Pandemic Accord, or Treaty, by next year’s World Health Assembly in May 2024.
The WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, praised the “historic milestone in the urgent drive to make all people of the world safer and better protected from the devastating impacts of pandemics”.
Others expressed more sceptical views. Mary Robinson, Chair of The Elders and former Irish President, stated that the UN as a whole — not the WHO — should coordinate the pandemic response because “pandemics affect the whole economy. It has an incredibly devastating impact that drives countries into debt.”
Yet much of the language of the declaration and the political manoeuvring that accompanied it continue to muddy the waters between the impact of the pandemic and the harms of overzealous policies in response. The difference may seem trite, but is very important.
For example, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohamed called the global response to Covid-19:
“A story of human ingenuity and human failure. On the one hand, tests created at lightning speed, and vaccines developed in record times. On the other, a lack of preparation, the vulnerable hit the hardest, and vaccines hoarded by rich countries, as people in poorer nations went without.”– DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL AMINA MOHAMED
She then went on to acknowledge the negative impact of the pandemic on rising hunger and poverty, growing government debt, and gender inequality. But did the pandemic really cause this?
Global agency staff have generated some critical work on the harms of pandemic policies. A World Bank estimate found 409 million more people fell into poverty in 2022. A UNICEF analysis and World Bank report discussed the erosion of human capital for the 771 million children who missed 1.5 years or more of school; their estimates suggest school closures erased all global educational gains achieved since 2000. A joint UN report led by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated 350 million more people were pushed into food insecurity, especially in Africa.
But the WHO, and indeed most of the global public health establishment, has not yet produced a serious postmortem that shines a light on the consequences of Covid policies. Instead powerful funders, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are laying the groundwork for a new lockdown doctrine for the next pandemic. The social and political consequences of draconian Covid measures are whitewashed; such impacts are all too often blamed on “the pandemic”.
A recent analysis from Simon Rynn in the world’s oldest security think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, stated that:
“In much of the developing world, Covid restrictions were seen as a cruel imposition from the get-go […] Unless searching debate takes place and a diversity of perspectives and evidence is brought to bear, there is a risk that future pandemic handling might worsen rather than improve the lives of many worldwide.”– SIMON RYNN
The hubris of global development agencies and the harm of utopian impulses have an unfortunately long history. Those who advocate for global plans in the halls of Geneva or New York need to be more linguistically accurate, despite the political discomfort. Differentiating between “the pandemic” and “pandemic policies” is one important step in ensuring accountability and reasoned debate for the next pandemic. We need more of it.
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