The unanimous resolution approved by the World Health Assembly on Tuesday night, calling for an inquiry into the origin and spread of the coronavirus and the international community’s response to it, masks a more complex diplomatic story. That the US and China have agreed to the resolution after prolonged acrimony in recent weeks over the origin of coronavirus, is indeed a surprise. The US wanted members of the World Health Organisation to pin the blame on Beijing for keeping the world in the dark about the nature of the virus that broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the turn of the year, letting it spread to other countries, and manipulating the WHO leadership into inaction. China, which vehemently denied these charges and proffered accusations of its own against the US, rejected the talk of any inquiry.
The real source of the consensus on the resolution is the enormous damage inflicted by the virus. It has already infected nearly 5 million people and killed nearly 3,50,000 around the world. To make matters worse, it has ground the global economy to a sudden halt and heaped unprecedented misery on the world’s population. No wonder most nations want to know where the virus came from, how it spread across the world, and the role that the WHO, as the world’s pandemic watchdog, played. As opinion among member-states converged in favour of an inquiry, China signalled a measure of flexibility. The US knew that insisting on a more stringent language would have meant no resolution at all.
The credit for generating the consensus must go to the EU and Australia that piloted the move at the WHO and other middle powers like India which extended early and strong diplomatic support. The middle powers have a bigger responsibility in the days ahead as the next round of contestation begins on the terms and conditions of the inquiry. Although the resolution has strong enough claws, there is bound to be an unending diplomatic squabble on its interpretation and implementation. India, which will take charge of the rotating chair of the WHO’s Executive Board for a year, will have its hands full in guiding the organisation through its most difficult moments. Besides ensuring a productive inquiry into the corona pandemic, Delhi needs to develop a practical agenda for reform and revitalisation of the WHO amidst President Donald Trump’s threats to permanently cut off funding and walk out of the forum. This week’s consensus at the WHO shows it is possible to construct a middle path in the deepening confrontation between China and America and that the middle powers can exercise global leadership.