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Only WHO qualified to lead global health governance

By He Yun | China Daily | Updated: 2021-06-03 07:32
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Photo taken in Brussels, Belgium on May 24, 2021 shows the live stream of the 74th World Health Assembly held at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. [Photo/Xinhua]

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most serious public health challenge the world has faced in the 21st century. It poses a serious threat to health systems around the world, and has highlighted the poor global coordination on health issues, inadequate investment in primary healthcare, and inequitable access to healthcare.

With countries striving to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, strengthening public health governance has become perhaps as important a task as facilitating economic recovery in the post-pandemic period. Since the World Health Organization is the most important player in global health governance, strengthening its role and enhancing its authority is key to developing a more resilient and equitable global health landscape.

First, strengthening the WHO's authority will give us the weapon needed to combat health-related misinformation and disinformation. One of the key takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we need to trust science and science-based solutions. The WHO publishes valuable science-based public health information crucial for informing countries' policy and shaping public health behavior. However, the impact of such information depends largely on the willingness of governments and the public to accept and trust it.

As we saw during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many, including a number of world leaders, relied on inaccurate information to raise questions and make false claims, with some even openly spreading falsehoods. Which made it more difficult for the public to identify verified facts and advice, resulting in the loss of many lives.

Enhancing the credibility of the WHO will boost the power of science and scotch falsities, giving governments and the public access to information they can trust. This will serve as a bulwark preventing misinformation and disinformation from taking hold.

Second, a strong WHO will strengthen global preparedness to deal with future pandemics. As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned, this will not be the last pandemic. Bill Gates, too, has been repeatedly reminded the world to take future pandemics as seriously as "the threat of war".

Even though we can never be fully prepared for eventualities, and an emerging communicable disease or outbreak may catch us by surprise, we still need to prepare to deal with emergencies so we can at least mitigate their most devastating effects.

We have seen the quick genome sequencing of the novel coronavirus by Chinese scientists, the speed and scale of vaccine development, the proliferation of diagnostic tools, and the discovery of proven or promising therapies and drugs which have helped save millions of lives. All these are the result of our preparations, through decade-long investment in global biomedical research and technologies, to deal with a public health emergency.

Moving forward, we need to prepare for the next pandemic and the WHO has a key role to play in this regard. A well-funded WHO will be able to effectively coordinate core epidemiological research, help develop tools for structural analyses and prediction, standardize methods for data collection, and monitor, control and eradicate communicable diseases.

Third, for years the WHO has been calling on governments around the world to address the issue of health inequities. It's high time the international community heeded that call. According to the WHO, even before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, half of the world's population lacked access to essential medical care, more than 800 million people were spending at least 10 percent of their household income on healthcare, and out of pocket expenses drove almost 100 million people into poverty each year.

COVID-19 has amplified these inequities both within and among countries. In some developed countries, the pandemic has widened the racial, income and gender divides. Globally, resource-rich countries have much easier access to advanced medical tools, personal protective equipment, and vaccines than low-income countries.

However, the pandemic has also highlighted our interdependence: nobody is safe until we are all safe. In the short run, countries need to honor their pledge to the WHO and COVAX, the vaccine initiative co-led by the WHO; GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations, to ensure equitable access to vaccines and essential technologies needed to defeat the virus.

In the long run, the WHO's leadership and expertise should be used to help countries scale up their primary healthcare investment, train health workers, and achieve universal health coverage by 2030, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. The WHO will be the core link in the global web of coordinated efforts to improve global public health governance and ensure our world is safer, fairer, and healthier place.

The author is an associate professor at Hunan University's School of Public Administration.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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