Coronavirus – Health and Governance Issues

Seizing the moment at the WHO


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: WHA

Mains level: Paper 2- Policy that India should follow at WHA executive board

India has been tasked with helming the  WHO executive board at the turbulent times. The world is facing the health crisis. It is against this backdrop, India has to lead the executive board. This article suggests 5 elements that should form the part of India’s policy approach.

Challenges for India as it heads WHO executive board

  • Minister of Health and Family Welfare is elected as the Chair of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) executive board.
  • The 34-member body is tasked with implementing the decisions of the recently concluded World Health Assembly (WHA).
  • The elevation affords India an important platform to steer the global public health response to COVID-19.
  • It also comes at a time when the WHO is being rocked politically as never before.

WHO: caught between the US-China crossfire

  • Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump wrote a letter to the WHO Director-General.
  • In the letter, he threatened to make permanent his temporary funding freeze as well as reconsider the U.S’s membership in the organisation if the latter did not commit to major substantive reforms within 30 days.
  • By contrast, at the WHA plenary, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $2 billion to fight the virus.
  • He also promised to pair up 30 African hospitals with domestic counterparts, accelerate the building of the Africa Centers for Disease Control headquarters, and ensure that vaccine development in China, when available, would be made a global public good.

So, as WHO executive body chair, India will have to navigate this treacherous power landscape with candour and tact. Following 5 elements should inform its policy approach.

1. Set epidemic prevention and control as a priority

  • India must insist that epidemic prevention and control remain the international community’s foremost priority.
  • As the virus’ chain of transmission is broken, the focus should shift to identifying the animal-to-human transmission origins of SARS-CoV-2.
  • China shares an important interest in facilitating international access to investigate COVID-19’s zoonotic origins.
  • Why China shares interest? Because Wuhan and other previously infected zones could yet be susceptible to the risk of viral reintroduction.

2. Review the early response of China and WHO to outbreak

  • India should lean on the WHO secretariat to fast-track the “impartial, independent, and comprehensive review” of the WHO’s – and China’s – early response to the outbreak.
  • The review’s findings should illuminate best practice and highlight areas for improvement, both in the WHO’s leadership and capacity as well as member states’ implementation of the International Health Regulations.
  • For those in New Delhi inclined to relish the prospect of Beijing’s comeuppance, the review’s findings may yet sorely disappoint.
  • The WHO-China Joint Mission featuring renowned global epidemiologists had termed China’s early COVID-19 response as the “most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history”.

3. Ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all

  • For ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines for all countries, India must promote the establishment of an appropriate multilateral governance mechanism.
  • The envisaged voluntary pooling mechanism to collect patent rights and regulatory test data should be suitably tailored to the needs of crisis.
  • And the World Trade Organization’s intellectual property rights provisions should be overridden as is allowed during a public health emergency to assure affordable vaccine availability.

4. Taiwan issue at WHA: India should stay aloof

  •  India must stay aloof from the West’s campaign to re-seat Taiwan as an observer at the WHA.
  • When Taipei last attended in 2016, it did so under the explicit aegis of UN General Assembly Resolution 2758, whereby the UN considers Taiwan to be an integral part of the People’s Republic of China.
  • That the independence-minded Tsai government is unwilling to concede this basis for attendance has more to do with domestic political manoeuvring than Chinese or international ostracism.

5.Global ban on consumption of wild animals

  •  India must lead the call for a permanent global ban on the consumption and trade of wild animals.
  • This ban should be with limited exceptions built-in for scientific research, species protection and traditional livelihood interests.
  • With two-thirds of emerging infections and diseases now arising from wildlife, the destruction of natural habitats and biodiversity loss must be taken much more seriously.

Consider the question “The WHO has been facing the credibility crisis for its response to the Covid-19. In such a difficult time for the agency, India has to lead the executive board of WHA. In light of this, suggest the policy approach that India should adopt at WHA.”


India has its work cut out. The government should seize the moment to steer the global response in addressing the shortcomings in various areas exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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