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Monday, June 01, 2020

Explained: The Covid-19 resolution at the World Health Assembly

While the resolution has been endorsed at the WHA, it remains to be seen how the probe will be carried out and to what degree of independence.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: May 21, 2020 2:19:30 pm
Explained: The Covid-19 resolution at the World Health Assembly At the virtual 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, May 19, 2020. (Christopher Black/WHO/Handout via Reuters)

The 73rd session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) took place virtually from May 18-19. During the session, countries including India, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, UK and Canada accepted a resolution asking for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) response to the pandemic as well as the identification of the “zoonotic” source of the coronavirus.

The origin of the virus is currently believed to be a wet market in Wuhan, China. According to a Reuters report, 116 of the 194 member states were in favour of the resolution.

What is the World Health Assembly (WHA)?

The WHA is the decision making body of the WHO and the Assembly, which is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland, is attended by member states. During the Assembly, the WHO’s 194 member states discuss health agendas set by the body’s Executive Board, set new goals and assign tasks to fulfill these goals.

Due to Covid-19, the Assembly was held virtually this year, and has been fit into a two-day schedule from a three-week schedule.

Also read | Harsh Vardhan set to be WHO Executive Board chairman: Report

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne Monday hailed the global support into a comprehensive investigation into the Covid-19 response.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, said “no country can solve this problem alone” and backed the WHO’s efforts to combat the outbreak. Merkel added that countries should “work to improve procedures” and the WHO should ensure its funding is sustainable.

Apart from this, the Assembly also addressed a global vaccine action plan with the “Immunisation Agenda 2030” that aims to ensure immunisation for all age groups to prevent the spread of preventable diseases and sustaining vaccine supplies.

What is the WHA draft resolution?

On Tuesday, the resolution brought forward by the European Union (EU) and moved by Australia on behalf of more than 100 countries including India, Australia and Japan, was endorsed at the Assembly.

While it does not mention China, the draft says the Director General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus should continue “to work closely with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and countries, as part of the One-Health Approach to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions, which will enable targeted interventions and a research agenda to reduce the risk of similar events as well as to provide guidance on how to prevent SARS-COV2 infection in animals and humans and prevent the establishment of new zoonotic reservoirs, as well as to reduce further risks of emergence and transmission of zoonotic diseases.”

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Further, the resolution states, “Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, (1) a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, (2) as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19.”

Explained: The Covid-19 resolution at the World Health Assembly Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of World Health Organization (WHO) attends the virtual 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, May 18, 2020. (Christopher Black/WHO/Handout via Reuters)

Why is the resolution important?

Since the pandemic, there has been increasing pressure on China, which so far has opposed suggestions for inquiry into the origins of the virus. Meanwhile, the US has repeatedly blamed the WHO and claims the organisation failed to obtain timely information and share it in a transparent fashion. The US has said that the pandemic “had spun out of control” in great part due to a costly “failure” by the WHO.

On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump threatened to permanently cut funding to the WHO. Last month, Trump halted funding to the organization after he said it had “missed the call” on the pandemic. Trump said at the time the body’s response was “China-centric” and suggested that the WHO had gone along with Beijing’s efforts to under-represent the severity of the outbreak. At present, the US is the WHO’s biggest contributor and makes up over 14.67 per cent of the total funding, at $553.1 million.

On Monday night Trump posted on Twitter a letter he had addressed to Ghebreyesus. In the letter, Trump accused the WHO of being “curiously” insistent on praising China and for its “alleged transparency”.

“Even now, China continues to undermine the International Health Regulations by refusing to share accurate and timely data, viral samples and isolates…” Trump wrote.

So, what does this mean for China?

While the resolution has been endorsed at the WHA, it remains to be seen how the probe will be carried out and to what degree of independence. Significantly, the timeline of the probe is also not clear. So far, China has opposed demands calling for an international investigation into the virus.

On Monday, China’s premier Xi Jinping announced a $2 billion donation to the United Nations, which is over twice the amount the US contributed before Trump cut off funding. It also offered to set up hospitals and health infrastructure in Africa.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the WHA, Xi said China “supports” the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response towards Covid-19 after it was brought under control.

The Trump administration sees China’s announcement as a way to escape scrutiny over its alleged role in delaying providing information about the disease outbreak.

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