When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic one year ago on Thursday, it did so only after weeks of refusing to use the term and insisting that the highly infectious virus could still be stopped.
A year later, the UN agency is still struggling to keep on top of the pandemic, and to persuade countries to abandon their nationalistic tendencies and help get vaccines where they’re needed most, the Associated Press is reporting.
The agency made some costly missteps along the way. It advised people against wearing masks for months and asserted that Covid-19 wasn’t spread in the air. It also refused to publicly call out countries, particularly China, for mistakes.
That created some tricky politics that challenged WHO’s credibility and wedged it between two world powers, triggering loud Trump criticisms.
President Joe Biden’s support for WHO may provide some much-needed breathing space, but the organisation still faces a huge task to project some authority amid an undignified scramble for vaccines that is leaving billions of people unprotected.
When WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus finally declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, governments began to take action, but by then, it was too late, and the virus had gone global.
A year later, WHO still appears ineffective. A WHO-led team that travelled to Wuhan in January to investigate the origins of Covid-19 was criticised for failing to criticise Beijing. In fact, WHO repeatedly praised China last year for its speedy, transparent response. That praise still haunts WHO and its reputation.
“Without a doubt, WHO’s failure to endorse masks until June cost lives,” said Dr Trish Greenhalgh, a primary care health sciences professor at Oxford University who sits on several WHO committees.
Greenhalgh wrote to the head of a key WHO committee on infection control, raising concerns about the lack of expertise among some members. She never received a response.
“This scandal is not just in the past. It’s in the present and escalating into the future,” she said.
With several licensed vaccines, WHO is now working to ensure that people in the world’s poorest countries receive doses through the Covax initiative, aimed at ensuring poor countries get vaccines.
But Covax has only a fraction of the two billion vaccines it is hoping to deliver by the end of the year. Some countries that have waited months for shots have grown impatient, choosing to sign their own private deals for quicker vaccine access.
WHO boss Tedros has responded largely by appealing to countries to act in “solidarity”, warning that the world is on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure” if vaccines are not distributed fairly.
He has asked rich countries to share their doses immediately with developing countries but not one has done so.
More recently, Tedros seems to have found a slightly firmer voice, telling leaders like Germany’s president about the need for wealthy countries to share vaccines.
Irwin Redlener of Columbia University said WHO should be more aggressive in instructing countries what to do. “WHO can’t order countries to do things, but they can make make it difficult for them not to follow their guidance,” Redlener said.
And yet, WHO’s top officials have said repeatedly it is not the agency’s style to criticise countries.
At a press briefing as late as this month, WHO senior adviser Dr Bruce Aylward shared the organisation’s view. He said simply: “We can’t tell individual countries what to do.”