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COVID-19: Strengthen WHO for Systemic Change of Health Systems

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Viewpoint by Dr P. I. Gomes

The writer is former-Secretary-General of the African, Caribbean & Pacific Group of States (now known as Organisation of Africa, Caribbean & Pacific States – OACPS)

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (IDN) – As the curve flattens in the trajectory of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in some countries, or the peak is claimed to have reached in others, allowing limited economic activities as in Wuhan, China or shopping for household necessities in Germany, widespread commentary and debate focus on economic, social, commercial and political impacts of the pandemic.

Comments and studies – brutally honest or alarming – give a sense of courage and earnestness that a quest for global solidarity is essential for containment and eventual recovery post-COVID-19. A recovery, which for Africa “could take a generation”, says President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who sees the African continent needing “at least US$100 billion in foreign support”.

“The pandemic can only be defeated by a strong and coordinated response”, says German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

This can be translated into an appeal for the requisite political will and enormous resources in support of a global-wide campaign by which multilateralism can reinforce its relevance and give effect to a world order in which the life and dignity of every person becomes the purpose and be-all of our common humanity.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents the opportunity and promise of a truly transformative human existence on planet earth but the challenges are formidable, requiring containment of the pandemic and recovery infused with new thinking to address systemic factors.

Those factors will, of course, reflect the best available medical science and technology, economic and financial resources, political and governance structures but must essentially reflect the human health and wellness as its raison d’etre, for ultimately it is human life to be saved, protected and nurtured in every society, country and region on planet earth.

No borders, race or class

In silence and invisible to the naked eye, COVID-19 has taken a lethal toll of nearly 200,000 from more than 200 countries and territories around the world. Devastating economic chaos as unknown in this century with excessively high levels of unemployment; harsh contraction of gross output at the global level and knock-on effects as a crash in prices of oil, gas, minerals and exports; travel by air, sea and roads have been curtailed. The many economic consequences are rehearsed by various reliable sources.

Far less in mainstream media are accounts of the related human aspects by which the poor and vulnerable suffer the most. The gender dimension is overlooked and personal and social costs tend to be treated with scant attention. Among these, the violence against women and children has shown noticeable increases. This was portrayed in the reports made to police for the month of March this year compared to a year ago.

Women confined to remain in homes marred by brutality from partners are subject to further suffering. Many who are already most vulnerable face the loss of meagre incomes as migrant workers and household care givers; female labour in garment industries has been made redundant and factories closed, sources of petty trade in farm products have diminished.

A critical human lens is necessary if fundamental questions are to be asked about a new way of thinking about health services and how the pandemic could be turned on its head to see less of “shareholder value” and primarily what the pandemic means in everyday life to the vast majority of the working poor, marginalized youth, mainly women and girls in fragile and post-conflict societies of the Global South.

They have endured structured inequality and gender violence without access to water, sanitation and minimal health care denied to their parents and grandparents before this COVID-19 pandemic so harshly intruded into their lives.

Questions deserve to be asked if our view and approach to containment and recovery in the post-COVID era will aim to promote people-centred societies in which good health and wellbeing; gender equality; clean water and sanitation – three of the SDGs – are to be vigorously pursued in the containment and recovery after COVID-19.

Funds to consolidate WHO and make systemic change

Displaying great urgency in a strong appeal on March 23, 2020, United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, called for great generosity and deep commitment of all – individuals, business, philanthropists and countries – to demonstrate our common humanity by supporting the UN’s Response and Recovery Fund.

“COVID-19 is menacing the whole of humanity – and so the whole of humanity must fight back,” said Secretary-General Guterres in launching the (US) $2bn global humanitarian response plan, aimed primarily for the world’s poorest countries.

Indeed, a highly commendable initiative and one must hope the world-wide response would be substantial and forthcoming. A world engulfed in a war with microbes but splashing financial abundance by the greatest number of billionaires humanity has ever known. At the same time, the largest number of luxury yachts per capita in Russia, Europe and USA have become the subject of conventions by the Financial Times.

Such contradictions deserve due reflections, if a new normal for the world’s wealth will serve our common humanity – for health care and “Development as Freedom” with “Inequality Re-examined” as Amartya Sen has extensively addressed.

Let us probe also how multilateral institutions may lead the new thinking in a new normal.

Almost within hours of the UN Secretary-General’s plea, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the release of (US) $ 9 million from its Contingency Fund for Emergencies (CFE), the rapid response mechanism that supports most vulnerable countries with weak health systems.

This COVID-19 response by WHO’s CFE is possible thanks to funding beyond annual contributions of seven countries – Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Sweden. They are deserving of high praise for their contribution to the CFE’s rapid response mechanism which, most likely, comes in addition to their normal annual contribution.

Also commendable has been the additional Euro 25 million allocation of the European Development Fund (EDF), co-managed by the Secretariat of the Organisation of African, Caribbean & Pacific States (OACPS) and the European Commission to Strengthen Health Systems across the regions of ACP countries.

These are modest and meagre contributions to the mammoth demands of the WHO, which is stretched to its limit but displaying exceptional professional courage and commitment in the performance at national and regional levels by a range of medical personnel, health workers, technicians and researchers.

Will it not be cost-effective, an example of consolidated institutional management in the UN system and a significant opportunity to enhance the cumulative impact of the limited financial resources available to deal with the pandemic, if the new appeal for a Global Response and Recovery Fund were to be directed to strengthen the WHO’s CFE?

While other efforts to mobilise funding in the fight against COVID-19 have been undertaken and will no doubt continue, one would hope the dispersion of resources can be prevented if the WHO were  boosted in ways it sees fit both to address the immediate challenges and also to deepen medium and longer term strategic planning for systemic changes to achieve heath care in building people-centred societies.

A more telling rebuke of Trump’s suspension of funding for WHO has been the global solidarity Concert of artistes and entertainers, organized by Lady Gaga, to raise funding in the fight against COVID-19. [IDN-InDepthNews – 24 April 2020]

Image credit: WHO/Elombat D.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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