The world needs a new, depoliticised WHO

The first session of the League of Nations (1920-1946) at Geneva on November 15 1920 © Alamy
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In the absence of a Covid-19 vaccine, information-sharing on a hitherto unprecedented scale is needed for the world to return to some kind of normality. Unfortunately, the increasingly politicised nature of the bodies charged with handling health-related information compromises our ability to achieve that collaboration. One key hurdle is the funding status of the World Health Organization.

This is based on discretionary contributions from member states, plus outsized grants from private donors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The latter gave $229m to the WHO in 2018, making it the organisation’s second biggest financier after the US, which gave $281m in the same period. Instead, a new and depoliticised system needs to be created, with a focus on neutrality and privacy. This is to reassure citizens who fear the rollout of extensive contact tracing will impinge on their privacy, and governments that distrust the influence of private donors and other large contributors.

The good news, history shows, is that such challenges are surmountable. Even during times of rampant deglobalisation and political fragmentation, a world consensus has mostly prevailed on the need to keep public health information flowing internationally. Heidi Tworek, an academic specialising in the history of information flows at the University of British Columbia, outlined in a prescient 2019 paper how states and empires acquiesced to the “intrusion” of epidemiological intelligence in the interwar period because they saw its benefits.

Furthermore, the need to keep data flowing to the League of Nations Health Organization, the precursor to the WHO, fuelled investment in international wireless infrastructure — thus forging the backbone of modern telecoms networks. At the time, League officials described the LNHO as “a central fire-station in a municipal system of fire prevention”, overseeing “the world’s alarm system”.

Amazingly, even Germany continued to send out epidemiological bulletins after Hitler rescinded the country’s league membership in October 1933. It was not all good. The LNHO’s imperial underpinnings, plus its growing dependence on the Rockefeller Foundation for funding — seen by many states as overt US influence — kept Latin America out of an otherwise global system. Its neutrality was further compromised by the eventual decision to remove data transmitted from Nauen, Germany, in 1939. This led some officials to observe the League could no longer facilitate world epidemiological intelligence. Ironically, it was a push by LNHO professionals to depoliticise the system that prompted the establishment of the WHO in 1948.

This new body allowed nations such as Spain to participate in information-sharing, despite being barred from the UN until 1955. But the WHO’s crowning success came in the 1970s when its neutrality helped it broker co-operation between the US and USSR to eradicate smallpox. According to Ms Tworek, this proves successful public health information sharing must be anchored in communications from trusted individuals or institutions, such as medics or public health agencies, and not politicians. Sadly, poor data and communication are now hampering the world’s ability to understand Covid-19. “What makes public health uniquely challenging is that any measures are only as effective as the weakest links.

The more neutral and trustworthy the communications, the higher potential levels of compliance,” Ms Tworek told me. Extra irony: fears of hidden political agendas have fuelled popular conspiracies about the rollout of 5G telecoms systems, which could help the world achieve the scale of information sharing needed now. Clearly, organisations such as the WHO are no longer seen as neutral enough to tackle the information-sharing task at hand. Today, as in 1948, a new Covid-19-specific alternative based on neutrality, transparency and shared values about data privacy is required.

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