Recently, Donald Trump accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of not informing him in a timely manner of a possible pandemic and its massive implications for the United States. According to him, WHO allowed the Chinese to put to sleep their vigilance and was late with recommendations to limit freedom of movement. Other countries, in particular Australia, played along with the American president. This topic prevails in press releases.
In such emergency conditions, international health policy not only provides information on how cooperating states respond to threats to human health and life. It expresses a broader and farsighted perspective of the world order, conflicts around spheres of influence inside and outside international organizations. It provides an answer to the question of whether international organizations can neglect the interests of their most important member states and what kind of reaction to expect from them in this case.
Health care appeared as an area of cooperation between states long before the start of the twentieth century. However, for a long time, international agreements were limited to the localization of infectious diseases. In particular, a solid and transparent policy of informing the affected countries, as well as agreements on measures to be taken in case of an epidemic threat. This is clearly evident in the current situation - many countries adhere to a similar strategy, their plans to combat the pandemic originate from a variety of discussions and decisions in the context of the World Health Organization and other institutions activities.
Last week, many pecked at the bait of Donald Trump and expressed doubts about the appropriateness of the continued existence of the World Health Organization, which, apparently, focuses on the interests of its individual Member States (China). Such a statement not only testifies to a strange and naive view of international organizations. Because of one phrase, the results of consultations between 194 countries - members of WHO for over 70 years, as well as cooperation of experts in the field of medicine, virology, epidemiology, sociology, and jurisprudence turn out to be thrown overboard.
International organizations are international relations platforms. Three metaphors are readily used to describe them: an arena for interstate discussions on common problems and the search for answers to them; structures, the administrative apparatus and the bureaucratic elite of which are perceived as independent institutions with their own organizational powers; and finally, instruments through or within which individual states try to assert their own interests. At certain points, of course, one of these metaphorical ideas dominates, but in their totality, they reflect the characteristic features of international organizations. It is the idea of the arena - the discursive boxing ring - that most clearly emphasizes the value of international organizations as platforms for communication, information exchange, and the generation of knowledge and data.
WHO's annual budget (about $ 2.2 billion in 2020) is exactly one-third of the estimated total costs of the Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport (BER). Anyone who doubts its appropriateness does not realize the fundamental importance of communication in building trust between the countries of the world. All of them are members of this organization. Moreover, the value of such a parliamentary body as the World Health Assembly, which annually gathers thousands of envoys of the WHO Member States, scientists, and experts, as well as numerous representatives of public organizations and commercial enterprises, is not recognized.
The mandate of the World Health Organization is clearly defined: as a central international structure, it is called upon to provide its member countries worldwide with the information, data, knowledge and technical assistance needed, in particular, in situations that are extreme in terms of health care. Preventing the spread of infectious diseases, and especially preparing for pandemics, can be considered historically the most important area of activity of WHO. But in this case, first of all, it is about creating opportunities for communication, which makes WHO one of the key institutions in the field of global health policy.
At the same time, one cannot fail to notice how WHO (like other international organizations) becomes an arena of conflicts in the struggle for the political power of its most influential member states. It is clear that it is not only a technocratic governing body in the healthcare sector but also a means of asserting political interests in the struggle for influence and power. The confrontation between the United States and China is part of the competition for economic and ideological spheres of influence, including in the countries of the global South, outside the context of a pandemic.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adan Gebreisus is allegedly an accomplice of the Chinese government - this is the main accusation against him from the American president, picked up even by many independent media. His native country of Ethiopia, according to the president, has greatly benefited from "development cooperation" with China, he has become a hostage to the Chinese and therefore cannot afford to accuse the Chinese government which was late to provide transparent information about a new kind of virus. Tedros’s warm remarks about the Chinese government after the visit of the WHO delegation to China on January 28, 2020, were immediately criticized. Despite them, he only two days later and before the originally stipulated deadline announced an international emergency, that is, the highest level of threat. WHO staff in an interview confirmed that this happened contrary to the wishes of the Chinese government.
Over the course of several weeks, it seemed that in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the states that had been particularly affected by it concentrated only on themselves, closed their borders, and froze international tourism. Thanks to the message of the American president, international politics are again becoming the focus of attention. And the conflict between the United States and WHO has become a lesson in the field of international relations. For it again showed us that health policy is much more than the classic "management" of health problems. On the contrary, in the context of epidemics threatening the world, it diplomatically represents a fine line, especially in conditions when these epidemics threaten the economic relations of individual countries and the progress of their development.
Anyone who monitors and analyzes international politics knows how cautious the language of communication of representatives of international organizations with the outside world is, and how rare are cases when the top echelon stigmatizes certain states. Therefore, the apparent flattery of the WHO Director-General after his visit to China in January 2020 was hardly a surprise to anyone.
What can be expected in view of the constantly aggravating tonality in communication between individual states and in relation to WHO crisis management? Will WHO really end if its largest contributor turns off the money flow? Discussions in recent weeks indicate that the World Health Organization has many lawyers, including the Federal Government of Germany, and that they are already making efforts to increase financial support for this organization as well. Bill Gates sharply criticized his president for a course of confrontation with WHO. There is every reason to believe that if the United States ceases to pay dues, other countries, as well as large funds, will wish and can fill the gap.
There is also no doubt that the pandemic will lead to an increase in the number of conflicts and recriminations between states, as well as between WHO and its Member States. Nevertheless, WHO remains at the core of crisis management. Its technical assistance on the ground and professional experience are invaluable to the countries of the global South. Precisely because it, in spite of differences of opinion and blunders, has become a platform for constant exchange between its individual member states, this organization contrary to all criticisms will maintain its dominant position in global health policy.