Dr. Peter A. Singer is special adviser to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization.
What value is the World Health Organization to Canada?
It’s a question I am asked. And, as a Canadian living in Geneva, working as special advisor to WHO’s director-general, my answer is always the same: WHO is essential. In fact, if WHO did not exist, we would be rushing to create it.
In an interdependent world, global threats require a global response. Bluntly said, none of us is safe until all of us are safe. That means we require multilateral institutions that operate internationally, reaching across borders to co-ordinate action, support national and regional responses and fill gaps when and where they emerge. Multilateralism works for the benefit of all people – whether in low, middle or high-income countries.
WHO was warning member states and the public concerning the outbreak from early January, declaring the highest level of global emergency on January 30th. Also in January, WHO published the first diagnostic test protocol, developed by a WHO partner laboratory in Germany, which was based on the genetic sequence for the novel coronavirus shared by China. WHO has shipped tens of millions of pieces of diagnostics, personal protective equipment and medical oxygen around the world. More than 100 surge missions have been undertaken to hot spots worldwide and our professionals have helped to support the training of more than 3 million health workers in addressing needs such as infection prevention and control.
So, the first part of my answer is that WHO exists to help where no single nation – no matter how powerful – can go it alone. This particular argument tends to resonate with Canadians who have historically embraced the virtues of multilateralism. Still, we live in a time when international institutions operate under unprecedented challenge.
It falls to WHO therefore to demonstrate its efficacy, keep improving its efforts and take nothing for granted. Even as we continue to combat COVID-19, WHO has launched the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19.
But for Canada, WHO’s value is not merely limited to the strength of this international response. There are also direct and practical benefits that support the efforts of federal, provincial and local public health officers, as well as policymakers right here in Canada. This has always been the case – from tobacco control to flu vaccine – but it’s even more needed now.
First, WHO regularly provides technical guidance on a host of public health matters related to COVID-19. As our understanding of the science evolves, that guidance will be updated, revised or even significantly revisited. This can be frustrating – evolving guidance concerning masks is a good example. But in dealing with a novel virus where our understanding deepens every day there is no alternative. We are learning as we go and technical guidance is essential in shaping Canada’s response.
Second, WHO facilitates the enormously valuable high-level exchange of information and lessons learned. On a daily basis, we bring together public health professionals, scientists and front-line workers to exchange information and trade best practices. Additionally, each week, health ministers from around the world come together to share perspectives and experiences. These include some of the most challenging front-line issues confronting countries such as testing, contract tracing and reopening. Canada participates in these sessions regularly. The lessons learned then filter through to our public health officials and health professionals, who also have their own WHO-based networks.
Finally, WHO is playing a crucial role in the scientific response to the pandemic, accelerating the development of diagnostic tools, therapeutics and vaccines. These are the tools that Canadians – and all others – are counting on most desperately. Just as importantly, WHO is the vehicle through which all member states have agreed that these breakthroughs will be fairly and equitably shared, avoiding the prospect that this vital public good might be reserved for some to the detriment of others.
As a Canadian working at the heart of the international response, I’m a daily witness to the efforts at WHO to confront COVID-19 and protect the public health of us all. I recognize that direct questions of WHO will be asked – as we should expect. At the same time, I can say with full conviction that Canada gains enormously from WHO. That relationship is vital not only to the exercise of Canada’s global leadership. It’s also central to our successful response to the pandemic right here at home.
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