The 73rd annual session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) was a stunning rebuke for Donald Trump, a quiet victory for the European Union and China, and an undiluted triumph for the director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghabreyesus.
Trump has reacted with his usual vigour and vulgarity. On the day after the assembly ended, Trump derided the official Chinese spokesman for “speak(ing) stupidly”, before going on to say, “it all comes from the top”, directly implicating President Xi Jinping in what he described as the “pain and carnage” that followed the “disgrace” of China’s “disinformation and propaganda attack.”
Next day, he damned China for being “desperate to have Sleepy Joe (his Democratic rival, Joe Biden) win the presidential race”, and threatened Beijing, “We are not going to take it lightly.” It was the angry voice of a bitter, vengeful loser, who had been resoundingly rejected by the international community the previous day.
On May 18, the first day of the virtual conference, the US health secretary had opened up, all cannons firing, complaining that the “WHO failed at its core mission of information sharing and transparency when members do not act in good faith” and demanding “an independent review of every aspect of WHO’s response to the pandemic” while stressing the “need for a more effective WHO”.
China’s president ignored the provocative statement and off-the-cuff insults prior to the conference of his US counterpart and made his case by underlining how people around the world “have looked out for each other and pulled together as one. With love and compassion, we have forged extraordinary synergy in the fight against COVID-19”. His approach secured the empathy of the vast majority of member-states, who were attending the assembly to fight the pandemic and not to witness the petty rivalry against “one member-state”, China, which the US representative had attempted to stoke.
President Xi won the assembly over with his commitment to the European Union’s proposition that any COVID-19 “vaccine development and deployment” should be made “a public good” to ensure “vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries” – a straight slap in the face of the US, which remains adamant in upholding Trump’s belief in “America First”, through which corporate pharma interests are privileged even in this pandemic. Then, lauding Tedros, “under whose leadership, the WHO has made a major contribution”, Xi said China supports a “comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19” but only after “it is brought under control”. Implicitly, this means after the November presidential elections in the US.
Tedros had salvaged his reputation earlier in his opening address in which he had boldly and baldly asserted, in straight response to US allegations, “The WHO sounded the alarm early and we sounded it often”, stressing that the organisation “declared a global health emergency – our highest level of alert – on January 30” (emphasis added) at a time when “there were less than 100 cases, and no deaths, outside China”.
As for the call to institute an independent review and evaluation, Tedros, tabling the report of the Independent Oversight Advisory Committee, pointed out, “the existing independent accountability mechanisms are already in operation, since the pandemic started”. Nevertheless, pledged the DG, “I will initiate an independent evaluation” not, as sought vociferously by the US “immediately” (that is, before the US presidential election in November) but “at the earliest appropriate moment”. He was drawing language from the proposed resolution already before the assembly but to be adopted the next day. The US had lost even before the proceedings of the WHA began.
The EU and France, in particular, forcefully commended the WHO protocol on Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) and the “pooling” of global scientific and financial resources to “allow guaranteed access to everything required to combat COVID-19”. The US opposed such “pooling”, but India endorsed it, as did the unanimous resolution.
The director-general added, in words to be adopted in their entirety in the resolution, as passed, that such a process of investigation and evaluation would have to be “step-wise” as well as “impartial, independent and comprehensive” and “encompass the entirety of the response by all actors, in good faith.” In other words, that it must not be partisan or focused only on one accused, China, as demanded by the United States representative who held “one member-state” responsible for “making a mockery of their transparent obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world”, nor limited, as the US demanded, “to every aspect of WHO’s response to the pandemic”.
Did anyone note the irony of the League of Nations having collapsed because it did not take Italy to task for aggression against a fellow member-state, Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia) and the UN system being challenged in the 21st century by the action of one member-state, the US, against the WHO DG who hails from the same Ethiopia?
Slapping injury on insult, the WHA decided that it sought “universal, timely and equitable access to and fair distribution of…all affordable essential health technologies and products…as a global priority, and the urgent removal of unjustified obstacles thereto” as well as “extensive immunisation against COVID-19 as a global public good…once affordable vaccines are available”
This was in line with the EU-Xi position but contrary to the reservations expressed by the US in its explanation of vote that the relevant paragraphs “do not adequately capture all of the carefully negotiated and balanced language” of TRIPS and the 2001 Doha declaration. The traditional friends and allies of the US like the European Union and its member-states distanced themselves from the US and stood by WHO and its DG.
The final humiliation was the postponement of a decision on “observer” status for Taiwan till at least the resumed session of WHA, leaving the US a pathetic outlier for playing domestic politics with the global health emergency.
In all this, India took up a neutral, not a nonaligned, position on controversial issues, perhaps to ensure its chairmanship of the WHO executive. Our health minister’s anodyne statement, except for endorsing “pooling”, gave no indication of India resuming its earlier 1950s and 1980s role of a maker and shaker of international affairs.
The government did not prepare either the nation or the international community for the critical issue the world will have to face during India’s chairmanship – whether to base the manufacture and distribution of any vaccine that might be developed on “open innovation” and equitable access for all, as urged by EU-China, the DG and the WHA resolution, or, as advocated by the US, subject global health emergency issues arising out of COVID-19 to the numerous conditionalities and cumbersome procedures followed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).
Can the Modi government stop shilly-shallying and rise to this international diplomatic challenge?
Mani Shankar Aiyar is a former minister for petroleum and natural gas, a former member of the Lok Sabha, and a member of the Congress party