Dr. Peter A. Singer, OC, is special adviser to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization.
With more than 3 million cases and more than 215,000 deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic stands as the gravest public health crisis in a century. In addition, the largest lockdown in human history has led to the loss of trillions of dollars, and the real economy is at a standstill in many parts of the world, threatening both lives and livelihoods.
Most distressing of all, we face the very real prospect that the worst may be yet to come.
Many people in low- and middle-income countries could lose their lives. In Canada, the virus could recur when lockdowns are eased. And because viruses don’t respect borders, there is no such thing as a safe nation until all nations are safe.
The question we must address is this: What is required to ensure that COVID-19 is controlled to the greatest possible degree, so the greatest possible number of lives can be saved and the greatest possible prospect of recovery worldwide can be achieved?
The answer is clear. We must maintain a co-ordinated and ambitious program both at home and abroad guided by science, solutions and solidarity. Individual countries must act within their own borders and alongside all countries of the world. International institutions must be harnessed in full, leveraging their expertise, networks and resources.
That is the blueprint for success. It is exactly the blueprint we at the World Health Organization (WHO) have followed.
Since the first indications of an outbreak arose, WHO has focused on doing whatever it takes to help – working around the clock and around the world to marshal support and provide global leadership and public health guidance. That effort has included early warning, direct support to countries through 149 country offices, and more than 70 surge missions, supply efforts to distribute millions of diagnostic kits and pieces of personal protective equipment, and online training of 2.3 million health workers around the world. Last week, the WHO launched Access to COVID-19 Tools with partners, foundations and heads of state to accelerate R&D on diagnostics, treatments and vaccines and ensure they are equitably distributed.
Leadership matters. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has led the international effort in a calm and principled manner, placing particular priority on saving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. He has repeatedly warned that the “window of opportunity is narrowing” and labelled the virus “public enemy number one.”
Still, questions have been raised about the speed and effectiveness of our response. The regrettable decision by the United States to suspend funding to WHO has served as a flashpoint, drawing the world’s attention to these issues rather than to the response itself.
Here are the facts.
The WHO picked up the first indications of concern on Dec. 31 – with reports of a cluster of pneumonia cases – and by the next day, had activated its incident management system. Within five days, the WHO warned countries, engaged technical experts and informed the public about the situation. Within 10 days, a comprehensive package of official public health guidance was issued. On Jan. 22 and 23, Dr. Tedros convened an emergency committee of independent experts from countries around the world. The following week, he led a high-level visit to China. On Jan. 30, when there were fewer than 100 cases outside China, the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern – the highest level of global alert. All of this and more occurred with the full engagement of member states and technical experts around the world.
At the WHO, we make no claim to perfection, and that’s why we have a regular after-action review with independent experts following every major outbreak so that we learn and hone our future emergency responses. Such scrutiny reflects our commitment to accountability and transparency and is essential to the development of best practices for the future and improvement in the International Health Regulations guiding our collective response. But, as the timeline plainly reveals, WHO took prompt action to draw attention to the risks of the virus.
There should be no difficulty in reaching consensus that a thorough examination of the global response to this pandemic – including the actions and authority of WHO – should occur. But surely, we require an equally emphatic consensus that every resource, every effort and every focus should be trained at present on confronting this still-ongoing public health crisis. Canada’s combination of domestic action and support for multilateral co-ordination is much appreciated. But more will be asked of us all – including, and perhaps especially, the WHO.
As a Canadian at the heart of the WHO’s response, I feel proud of the effort of all my colleagues to save lives and livelihoods.
Weakening this organization at this moment would be like tying one hand behind the back of a surgeon midway through an operation. And in taking on COVID-19, the world needs both hands free.
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