Tedros’ freezing response to Covid-19 leaves global governance in ruins

  • + The unforeseeable end of the pandemic threatens Tedros’ reputation. 
  • + He faces criticism for political biases in his diplomatic efforts. 
  • + His only hope is a radical transformation of the framework of the WHO. 
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus struggles to keep the relevance of the WHO afloat.
Source: El Periódico / AFP 

January 30th marked a year since Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, alarmed the world about the COVID-19 pandemic. Categorizing the outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), Tedros had expected political leaders to react as promptly as they had during the previous SARS and H1N1 outbreaks. We now know that the chaos and fear that ensued due to the surge in cases across nations was due to an ignorance of Tedros’ warnings. 

While 2021 started on a (slightly) brighter note as governments across the predominantly developed world commenced vaccination drives, a year in, the world doesn’t look much different. And unfortunately for Tedros, so does his position in the international community. As national governments continue to impose lockdowns, place international travel restrictions and penalize those who break ‘Covid-rules’, Tedros finds himself in a dystopian reality he would very much like to be left out of. 

But why Tedros? 

As political leaders across the world deflect accusations and turn to blame each other, the Director-General of the WHO seems the most natural scapegoat. At least in doing so, heads of state can diverge accountability towards their citizens. Although we focus on Tedros, think of him as a personification of global governance at large. The dilemma Tedros finds himself in is similar to that of international and multilateral organisations as they search for reasons to maintain their relevance and garner respect from nations. 

While it’s easy to blame Tedros for the catastrophe that was the year 2020, in reality, he was limited by the power the WHO and the international community has granted him. In hindsight, we know that he waited a week longer to declare COVID-19 as PHEIC. But Tedros relies on the WHO’s emergency committee along with information disseminated by national governments to make such a decision. At that point, WHO’s mission to China could only find limited evidence regarding its means of transmission. So on January 23rd 2020, he could only admit that “this is an emergency in China.” 

Despite Thailand confirming its first COVID-19 case on 12th January, Tedros was left with no option but to appease President Xi Jinping in hopes to draw out sufficient information to decide for the world. Understandably so, Tedros had to commend Xi then for “setting a new standard for outbreak control.” Yet, such a move did not bore well with other nations.

Once the virus began spreading outside China, national governments began scrutinising Xi for his delayed response and unwillingness to notify the WHO earlier. It was natural then, for Tedros to share the spotlight with Xi as the world thought that the two were conspiring to conceal the mess within China. 

Adding to that, former President Donald Trump raised concerns when he announced that the US would exit the WHO in May 2020. In a Tweet, Trump stated that “the W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric.” Ironically, the only time the US truly had a problem with Tedros (and the WHO) was when it couldn’t buy the support. For decades now, the US has been a key funder to the WHO, contributing around 15-20% of the agency’s budget.

It is no secret that US presidents have used this funding as a means to direct WHO’s policies based on their interests and to ensure the safety of their citizens. Despite the self-serving motives, such an influence in the WHO actually benefited global health at large, with the agency’s drive to eradicate polio across the world being a key success story. 

Funding provided by nations and private entities alike, determine the direction international agencies such as the WHO, and subsequently, their heads, take. Thus, global policies are often changing their course along with the shifting geopolitical dynamics. Adding to that, the WHO can’t bind or sanction its members for not cooperating with it. So when Xi took a while to share information with the agency and later, nations refused to immediately respond to his announcement of the PHEIC, all Tedros could do was wait. Despite the standards set by the International Health Regulations set up by the WHO in 2005, a document all the 194 members are bound by, it falls short in that it doesn’t state what happens when states don’t comply. 

To say that Tedros and the WHO were inactive during the past year would be misleading; the agency along with other international organizations made over 900 recommendations throughout the year. What can be sufficiently argued is the lack of effective global governance it lacked. Despite the title of the Director-General of the WHO, the power has predominantly laid in the hands of the presidents of the US. But with Trump brushing off his hands from this problem, the only other leader who could take this responsibility was Xi, solely because Tedros doesn’t really have the power to influence the global order. But the constant scepticism towards Xi’s policies makes him a weak candidate to solve the pandemic. 

Anthony Fauci’s statement of the US rejoining the WHO was taken very well but it against displays the agency and its Director-General’s constant reliance on big nations. With the onset of vaccine nationalism now, Tedros is again limited in what he can do for the global health order. Yet, the responsibility of convincing the leaders lies with him. 

A lose-lose situation for Tedros, unless …

It’s a known fact that Tedros’ election as the Director-General in 2017 was supported largely by the African and Asian bloc, with China’s Xi driving the movement. Additionally, countries such as the UK and France supported his rival, with the Americans seeking to “destroy his image”. The pandemic presented a brilliant opportunity for these countries to focus on the Tedros-Xi ‘alliance’. Upholding his reputation is not the only thing Tedros is worried about. He understands global cooperation is hanging by a thread. When he comes under fire, the criticism is also directed towards the WHO and what it stands for.  

The constant comparisons to former Director-General don’t help either. Over the past year, the success story of Brundtland has tainted his reputation further. Brundtland’s aggressive diplomacy during the SARS outbreak ensured that the WHO was not at the mercy of national governments for the dissemination of information. She even went on to criticize China for withholding information that would have been crucial in saving lives. She was praised for curbing the outbreak through “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” done so by building a perception of authority and global dominance in the hands of the Director-General. 

Tedros now worries that he would be put under the same category as Margaret Chan who had to take the blame for the failure of curtailing the Ebola outbreak in 2014 (if he hasn’t been already). But Tedros is not at the same liberty as Brundtland to openly criticize China without the backing of the Western bloc. 

An Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has been created to understand what went wrong in the initial months of the pandemic; the main findings of the panel will be published in May 2021. With the two main culprits being Xi and Tedros, the latter knows that he will need to seek support elsewhere as Xi throws him under the bus to save his reputation.

The damage to global order has already been done. Yet, what could save Tedros, the WHO and just global governance at large is how Tedros reacts after the threat of COVID-19 has passed. Tedros can only hope that his legacy would be the radical transformation of the framework of the WHO and its international influence after the crisis. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, proposed the signing of a new treaty on pandemic whereby the Director-General and the WHO could extend their powers during such crises. 

What’s needed is a system that would decrease the WHO’s reliance on specific nations to draw upon international authority. To do so, one of the suggestions has been to speed up the decision-making process by partially using unofficial data found on social media, albeit with problems of accuracy. 

But why delve over the ‘should have, would have, could have’?  

Between 2011 and 2018 alone, the WHO traced 1483 epidemic events in 172 countries. We now know that zoonotic outbreaks will persist in the future; the exponential population growth and improvement in transportation have ensured it. While the debacle of 2020 sets forth a pessimistic view of the future, it doesn’t have to be that way so long as the world learns from its mistakes. 

Due to the WHO’s initiative and the willingness of nations to cooperate, the agency declared the complete eradication of the smallpox virus in 1979. Even in the past two decades, the WHO has been majorly successful in dealing with pandemics. In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari reflects upon humanity’s fight against plagues and epidemics. He notes that 21st-century medicine is robust enough to fight against such outbreaks; hence the increasing death toll is not due to the nature of the virus or the outbreak, but because of “human incompetence”. And while the existence of the COVID-19 virus a year later mocks such a statement, we do now know that this crisis is largely due to human error. 

It’s easy to blame the political leaders, of course, during such times. Yet, the pandemic has also highlighted the flaws in our society and us as citizens. It is the combination of weak leadership and this lack of purpose in our democratic societies that has made us susceptible to the chaos that may arise when our political, economic or health systems are not prepared. COVID-19 alone cannot be blamed for rising nationalism and crippling global cooperation; the pandemic has only accelerated the already fragile system. 

What also needs to be considered is what the exclusion of countries such as Taiwan from the WHO means for effectively governing global health. Taiwan claims that the WHO had ignored its initial reports concerning the virus in January 2020 to be in Xi’s good books. While such memberships are far too complex, the WHO and other international organizations need to weigh the cost of such exclusions to the world at large. 

Citizens and politicians alike of these democratic societies ( but also others) need to reflect upon the events of the past decade and how they have taken international relations a few steps back. Globalisation without global cooperation would only lead to more of these blunders. 

(This article is written to complement the report, ‘Dethroned By A Virus’. To read more about how the pandemic revealed the lack of purpose in Western society and how that has shaped international relations, read the report here.)

Ishwari Sawant

Head of Research & Analysis