World Health Assembly prepares for show of unity on Covid-19 response - and possible US funding resumption to WHO?

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) delivers his statement, during the first day of the 72nd World Health Assembly at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, May 20, 2019. (KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

Global leaders are set to make a symbolic display of unity in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic  at the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting of WHO member states. The Assembly, opening Monday, is likely to overwhelmingly approve a European Union resolution that aims to step up COVID-19 response, and ensure equitable worldwide access to treatments and future vaccines.

There are also 11th hour reports that the United States could even offer a partial resumption of funding to WHO, after weeks of attacks for its “China-centric” policies.

But with the thorny issue of Taiwan’s demands to be invited as an observer to the Assembly still unresolved, rising geopolitical tensions between the US and China are playing a big role in the lead-up to the 73rd Assembly, meeting for the first time ever in a virtual format.

Why is this important ?

“We are only as strong as our weakest link” has been the WHO battle cry for sometime. Global coordination in the battle against a pandemic that affects everyone is critical to ensure that countries put in place the most effective disease control policies; and potential new medicines and treatments reach everyone.

What is at stake this year?

Before countries can even start talking about COVID-19, they will likely face a vote over a procedural proposal to invite Taiwan to the Assembly as an observer. The issue is less about Taiwan, than about the growing conviction in western capitals that China's early reporting on the virus, and its possible origins, has not been entirely transparent. Lining those concerns is a longstanading desire to contain the geopolitical influence of Beijing in the Western Pacific region.

Also looming in the background of this year’s WHA, is a WHO budget crisis triggered by the decision of US President Donald Trump to suspend American funding, which covers a hefty 15% WHO’s budget – and an even higher proportion of WHO’s activities in Africa.  US and WHO legal and technical teams have already been working behind the scenes to mitigate the damage done by the 90-day suspension. Now, a Fox News report late Friday evening suggests the White House may even announce a partial restoration of WHO funding at the Assembly. The question is whether this somehow hinges on an arrangement to invite Taiwan as an observer?

"This is an unprecedented moment for WHO. It is also in the line of fire as it has never been before. We see WHO walking a tightrope between two major world powers," said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre of the Geneva Graduate Institute, which is hosting a two-week series of events around the WHA that kicked off Thursday.

Moon describes the COVID-19 pandemic as "a stress test for the global health community.

“It's a stress test that can narrow or widen the divisions that we already see.  What we need to do is to think beyond business as usual, to move beyond politics as usual - and the WHA will be a test for that."

Health Policy Watch -World Health Assembly Prepares For Show Of Unity On Global COVID-19 Response - But Potential Dispute over Taiwan