[Burning Issue] World Health Organization (WHO) And Coronavirus Handling



International organisations are important for the UPSC exam. International Relations (IR) is a crucial segment of the UPSC syllabus and every year, questions are asked based on international organisations in the UPSC prelims and mains exams. We have covered the most important organisations in various articles and Burning Issues. This article focuses on the recent issues that have plagued the World Health Organization. 



  • US President Donald Trump has lashed out at the WHO by declaring he would “hold” their funding, and then said the decision is still under consideration.
  • Trump accused WHO to be China-centric and that it got every aspect of the coronavirus pandemic wrong.
  • US, however, isn’t the only one criticizing the WHO. Several leaders, columnists, and others have also criticised the WHO’s handling of China — where the virus had originated.

A brief history of the WHO

World Health Organization

  • The WHO is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health.
  • It is part of the U.N. Sustainable Development Group.
  • The WHO Constitution, which establishes the agency’s governing structure and principles, states its main objective as ensuring “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.”
  • It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with six semi-autonomous regional offices and 150 field offices worldwide.

Its establishment

  • The WHO was established in 7 April 1948, which is commemorated as World Health Day.
  • The first meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the agency’s governing body, took place on 24 July 1948.
  • The WHO incorporated the assets, personnel, and duties of the League of Nations’ Health Organisation and the Office International d’Hygiène Publique, including the International Classification of Diseases.
  • Its work began in earnest in 1951 following a significant infusion of financial and technical resources.

Composition of WHA

  • The WHA, composed of representatives from all 194 member states, serves as the agency’s supreme decision-making body.
  • The WHA convenes annually and is responsible for selecting the Director-General, setting goals and priorities, and approving the WHO’s budget and activities.
  • The current Director-General is Tedros Adhanom, former Health Minister and Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, who began his five-year term on 1 July 2017.

Mandate of the WHO


  • The WHO’s broad mandate includes advocating for universal healthcare, monitoring public health risks, coordinating responses to health emergencies, and promoting human health and well being.
  • It provides technical assistance to countries, sets international health standards and guidelines, and collects data on global health issues through the World Health Survey.
  • Its flagship publication, the World Health Report, provides expert assessments of global health topics and health statistics on all nations.

Focus areas

  • The WHO has played a leading role in several public health achievements, most notably the eradication of smallpox, the near-eradication of polio, and the development of an Ebola vaccine.
  • Its current priorities include communicable diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS, Ebola, malaria and tuberculosis; non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
  • It also focuses on a healthy diet, nutrition, and food security; occupational health; and substance abuse.


  • Some of the WHO’s biggest achievements came in its early days.
  • In 1958, the erstwhile United Socialist Soviet Republic, or USSR, had proposed a WHO-led smallpox eradication programme. The disease was still endemic by 1966, especially in Africa and Asia.
  • The next year, in 1967, the WHO began its Intensified Eradication Program that focused on mass vaccinations, and it proved to be a huge success.
  • By 1980, small pox was declared as eradicated from the world — the only disease to be classified this way.

Other successes

  • In 1978, the WHO adopted the Declaration of Alma-Ata, calling on “urgent and effective national and international action to develop and implement primary health care throughout the world”.
  • The declaration was considered historic for identifying the role and necessity of primary healthcare in assuring health facilities for all.
  • The WHO has played a central role in global immunisation programmes against polio, measles and tetanus, among others.

Financing of WHO

  • The WHO relies on assessed and voluntary contributions from member states and private donors for funding.
  • It started off with $5 million and 51 member countries — all of whom signed its constitution.
  • Now, it has 194 member countries, with a budget of $4.8 billion.
  • The US is currently the biggest financial contributor to the WHO and has been its active member for many decades.

Handling of novel coronavirus pandemic

  • In December 2019, the WHO’s China office was informed about cases of pneumonia of unknown cause detected in the Wuhan city of Hubei province.
  • Ever since, the WHO has worked to inform the world about the illness — called the novel coronavirus — and even earned the praise of global health experts initially for its transparent and swift approach.
  • It was the WHO that announced a global emergency due to the spread of the virus and later declared it a pandemic.
  • It is raising $675 million to find a cure and spread awareness about the illness.

Why is WHO under Criticism?

1) Some unanswered questions

  • Questions were raised when WHO director praised China for the speed with which detected the outbreak and its commitment to transparency.
  • China has a history of keeping its data under wraps and it is said to have even concealed the extent of the outbreak during the early stages.
  • The WHO surprisingly maintained that masks only need to be used by those with symptoms, and travel bans are “ineffective” in curbing the spread of the virus.

2) Affinity with China

  • The WHO can certainly be criticized for giving China too much benefit of the doubt at the beginning of this pandemic.
  • The WHO is now being called “Chinese Health Organisation” even as it is at the forefront of fighting its worldwide spread.
  • Despite the criticism, the WHO has pledged to keep fighting against the current pandemic.

3) Delayed response

  • They accuse the WHO of simply reporting virus statistics given to them by the Chinese government, even though we now know China widely underreported and even tried to hide the extent of the virus.
  • For example, in mid-January, the WHO repeated that China said human-to-human transmission of the virus hadn’t been proved.
  • The WHO waited weeks to declare a public health emergency and only declared it a pandemic March 11, later than many countries would have preferred.

4) Trump being Trump

  • The US is trying to deflect the blame away from this catastrophe back onto China.
  • This fight between the US and China, with the world’s leading health organization in the middle, is a distraction.

Some of its failures:

  • It has come under fire in recent years for its heavy bureaucratic framework, which has led to inefficiencies, inertia, and even “over-reactions”.
  • During the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, the WHO was accused of overplaying the dangers of the virus and aligning with pharmaceutical interests.
  • As a consequence, member states bought billions of doses of vaccines that ultimately remained unused, leading to wastage of resources and money.
  • The organisation later admitted having failed in communicating about it properly.
  • During the Ebola outbreak in 2013-2015, the WHO failed to sound the alarm over the virus, despite knowing about it. Thousands of lives were lost before the WHO could act.

Why has WHO failed?

  • The WHO’s sprawling structure is an outcome of a vague mandate and global power imbalance.
  • WHO is facing the biggest pandemic in human history. For all the responsibility vested in the WHO, it has little power.
  • Unlike international bodies such as the WTO, the WHO, which is a specialised body of the UN, has no ability to bind or sanction its members.
  • Its annual operating budget, about $2bn in 2019, which is smaller than that of many university hospitals and split among a wide array of public health and research projects.
  • At the same time, the international order on which the WHO relies is fraying, as aggressive nationalism becomes normalized around the world.


  • Whatever the causes of this disaster are, it is clear that the WHO has failed in its duty to raise the alarm in time.
  • This shortfall of WHO is failure indicative of a deeper malaise: the global institutional framework is a pawn in the hands of the great powers, cash-strapped.
  • While the focus has been on what happened between China and the WHO, in epidemiological terms the crisis has moved on.
  • The WHO is battling against a breakdown in international cooperation that is far beyond its capacity to control.
  • States have been turning away from international institutions for a long time. And WHO has relied on the often unspoken norms of international collaboration that underlie it.

Way forward

  • The new world order is on the way. The spread of concepts like “before corona” and “after corona” will become commonplace.
  • The global institutional architecture of the 1940s cannot help humanity face the challenges of the 2020s.
  • India as a nation has an important say for fundamental reforms in the UN System, including the WHO to make it more transparent, competent, and accountable.
  • Nothing less than a new social contract between states and the international system can serve the purpose.








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