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Coronavirus information
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In the weeks leading up to the declaration of a pandemic, Current WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, seen here on March 30, 2020, warned that national public health measures were inadequate to contain Covid-19.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Francine McKenzie is professor and chair of the history department at Western University and author of GATT and Global Order in the Postwar Era.

In these remarkable times, people are making sense of the global response to the novel coronavirus pandemic as a war we must fight. Health-care workers are on the front lines. Emergency measures have been enacted. The world is united against a common foe.

And just like in the Second World War, when people wondered how to prevent another conflict, people are already thinking about a post-pandemic landscape and asking how to keep us all safe from disease.

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In the Second World War, the response was to create a global governance system revolving around international organizations. The United Nations was at its centre, surrounded by specialist organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which tackled conditions such as malnutrition, fluctuating exchange rates, and closed markets that fomented international animosity and instability, respectively. The idea was that international organizations would offset the actions of nations that pursued interests narrowly and to the detriment of others.

The WHO was among these postwar organizations, and its first director-general was the Canadian psychiatrist Brock Chisholm, an avowed internationalist. Chisholm believed that everyone had become a world citizen during the war: “From now on the world is a different place, and we can no longer live as isolated peoples in isolated lands.” He insisted that “health, like security and peace, is indivisible.”

But there was resistance to redesigning international relations in a way that downgraded national authority and sovereignty. Political leaders wanted individual nations to remain the primary unit in the postwar order. So the set-up of the WHO made clear that nations were still at the centre and top of the global order. As Chisholm wrote, the WHO was not a supranational organization; its task was to assist national health services.

One of the principal challenges in international relations since 1945 has been to balance national interests and international well-being; to find ways to work together while respecting national sovereignty. It is not an easy balance to strike, and some international organizations have made missteps. This happened to the WHO when Chisholm pushed members to take up the controversial question of population control. Instead of asserting the WHO’s ability to act independently, he was forced to accept that the WHO would follow the wishes of members.

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Current WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is wrestling with this same challenge. In the weeks leading up to the declaration of a pandemic, Dr. Tedros warned that national public health measures were inadequate to contain Covid-19. He implored governments to act and he echoed Chisholm’s message: Health is indivisible. Solidarity is essential: “We cannot fight disease alone.” Our plight is universal: “We are one humanity, with one, common enemy.”

Dr. Tedros was initially reluctant to categorize this crisis as a pandemic, perhaps because of the criticism directed at the WHO in 2009 when it gave that label to H1N1. But he may also have delayed because of the historically delicate detente between national politicians and international organizations. Invoking the term “pandemic” extends the WHO’s reach into national spheres and could be seen as a reproach to national responses, especially those governments that adopted a wait-and-see approach or even cavalierly dismissed the crisis. Millions of lives are at stake, but so too are the credibility and authority of the WHO.

The past is not a clear guide for the present, let alone the future. But it helps us to ask questions about today. One question is whether international organizations remain relevant. The WHO was criticized for delaying calling the current crisis a pandemic, but we need the WHO because it anticipates the spread of disease, monitors the public health measures of its members, and reminds us of the need to work together. No one else thinks about the big picture in this way.

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The question should instead be: How do we reform our global order to make the WHO and other international organizations stronger? Such a reform would strike a new balance between international well-being and national sovereignty. If we decide they should be stronger, the time to act is while we are in crisis. It was possible to build a new global order in the 1940s because a war raged; no one needed to be convinced that our fate is collective. We should bear this in mind if we want a post-pandemic world where disease is less likely to unleash disaster.

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