The World Health Organization, under pressure from member countries, has agreed to an independent probe of how it handled its international response to the coronavirus, but such an investigation must be thorough and transparent if the organization hopes to repair its damaged reputation.
Despite reports in late January of an increasingly deadly virus infecting thousands in China, and the subsequent spread to Europe, WHO officials did not declare a global pandemic until March 11. President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed the organization for its delay in issuing warnings, and claims it sided with China in withholding information about the virus’ origin.
The president said the organization did a “a very sad job” and that he was considering cutting annual U.S. funding for the WHO from $450 million a year to $40 million. Several Republican lawmakers have called for the resignation of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has repeatedly defended the organization’s actions in fighting the pandemic.
A coalition of African, European and other countries have called for a “comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO’s coordination of the global response, although officials said it would stop short of dealing with some of the more contentious issues such as the origins of the coronavirus. If the probe is to carry any weight in reestablishing confidence in the WHO, all issues must be addressed and on the table for evaluation.
WHO officials must look at how the organization can be improved and streamlined to cut past the bureaucracy that critics say has bogged down its efforts in the past, notably in dealing with the Ebola outbreak several years ago.
A first report by an oversight advisory board to the WHO has already raised questions about the organization’s warning system for alerting the world to potential outbreaks. Clearly there are problems within the organization that must be examined and addressed going forward.
Despite the ongoing criticism by the Trump administration of the WHO, it is an international organization that is needed. Poorer countries depend on the WHO for delivering medical help and supplies in times of crisis. And if the coronavirus pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that the world needs an international organization that can quickly identify outbreaks and help coordinate responses.
The independent probe of WHO’s response efforts must be done quickly and thoroughly to reassure member countries of the group’s effectiveness. Anything short of that will only add to more questions about the organization’s future.