On 18 – 19 May 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) held its Seventy-third Assembly in a virtual mode for the first time in its history. The General Assembly is the decision-making body of WHO. It is attended by delegations from all WHO Member States and focuses on a specific Health agenda prepared by the Executive Board. The main functions of the WHO Assembly are to determine the policies of the Organization, appoint the Director-General, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed program budget. The Health Assembly is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland.
In light of the ongoing resource requirements related to the COVID-19 pandemic, some documents that are not required to be considered at this virtual meeting, and the decisions taken along the Assembly, will be published at a later date. This decision was made to allow for a prudent use of resources and reflects the current priorities of the Organization. Normally, the WHO Assembly addresses all the issues concerning world health such as the Global vaccine action plans of Meningitis prevention and control, neglected tropical diseases, Poliomyelitis eradication and analyzes the Annual report on Human resources, the implementation of the International Health Regulations and the annual budget.
Living through the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted how the world functions on a global scale, and we have subsequently been advised to alter our behavior and habits in order to survive this pandemic and minimize the number of fatalities. Each country and nation-state, however, has its own protocols and offers its own guidance concerning the pandemic. These differences have caused some confusion and questions to arise concerning methods that were executed as well as additional measures that could potentially be taken to curb the virus’ impact. Recently, the WHO as a leader in global health, has received significant attention during this time. It is a part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group and was created to address all range of health issues worldwide to help people maintain their well being. The WHO, therefore, has sustained a heavy presence in the media through a range of activities such as offering advice on precautions that people should follow during this pandemic, answering questions about the COVID-19 virus, and sharing projections about its possible trajectory.
At the same time, the WHO has also been a source of controversy throughout the years, and its pronounced presence during this time has further garnered the attention of its critics.
The WHO relies on funding from its Member States, and as of late, some groups of people are pushing for their countries to cease its funding. The WHO was designed to also address issues related to international public health that have made it a target for conservative groups accusing it of invasively interpreting issues related to sexual and reproductive health including abortion, LGBT rights, prostitution, sex reassignment surgery, masturbation and surrogacy.
Among such movements standing in opposition to the WHO is CitizenGo, a Conservative Christian group, that, among other initiatives, supports the United States’ current attempt to suspend funding the WHO. In a recent mailing to its followers they said, “A global health organization that pumps billions of dollars annually into our society to harm children is not needed. President Trump’s plan to defund WHO is offering us a real opportunity to see an end to their global agenda that opposes our values.” They and many others believe that the WHO should not continue to be funded with public money because of its involvement in issues that contradict their values. Mr. Trump had also threatened to permanently cut off all United States funding of the WHO unless it committed to “major, substantive improvements” within 30 days. It was a significant escalation of his repeated attempts to blame the WHO and China for the spread of the virus.
On the other hand, individual people, organizations and States support the WHO recognize that its purposes are essential to provide information to the public about safe health practices including all those that fall under the scope of sexual and reproductive health. The goal of the WHO is to curb the spread of misinformation by providing facts and teaching people about safer and healthier alternatives, even concerning controversial topics such as abortion. For example, the WHO offers resources to teach women about the availability of safe abortion services so that they do not risk their lives by attempting to get an unsafe one. The WHO, for instance, published an article about unsafe abortion with a list of general facts about it, then delving deeper into why it poses a significant health risk and offering safer alternate options.
The WHO first and foremost is a health organization which of course includes topics that may be uncomfortable sometimes to talk about, but that is exactly the reason they need to be properly discussed and addressed. Misinformation spreads easily through ignorance, so it is crucial to provide correct information and reliable sources. Not discussing these issues, is what causes them to get out of hand and become a collective danger.
Covid-19 has produced heated debates about a future vaccine and about the measures countries have taken to mitigate the spread and efficient ways to collaborate between countries. Two issues have taken center stage at the WHO General Assembly.
The Assembly was to evaluate the possibility of an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. A draft resolution had received support from 116 countries, aiming for an agreement on the European and Australian resolution calling for "an evaluation process" to be launched to examine the international health response and measures taken by the Organization in response to the pandemic. In order for the resolution to be approved, it needed the support of two thirds of the 194 members of the assembly. Beijing strongly opposed the hypothesis of an international investigation into the pandemic. The UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, also expressed his disagreement about beginning an investigation in his opening speech where he stated, "This is not the time for an investigation." He called instead for the 194 States to remain united at the moment leaving the investigation into the origin of the virus for "When we leave Covid behind."
China also opposed the presence of Taiwan in the WHO General Assembly. However, it is worth noting that Taiwan would be able to provide crucial input about handling the pandemic, seeing as their particular response to the virus was efficient and showed positive results. At the request of the EU, Australia strongly supported by the US did finally meet the agreement of the Assembly, Taiwan is still denied having back the seat it has longtime occupied at WHO, a decision criticized not only by the US, but also decreasing the universality and efficiency of WHO work.
The WHO General Assembly concluded on May 19, 2020. Its documents and video recordings are available to the public, while its resolutions will be published later, because people are entitled to have access to proper information otherwise they may fall susceptible to obtaining a biased substitute.
Leaving people without proper guidance, may lead them into making the wrong decisions. Even during this pandemic, we have seen how empowering their knowledge about COVID-19 had saved lives and provided hope for overcoming the virus. Empowering people with the necessary knowledge to maintain all aspects of their health is WHO’s mission. If there is one valuable lesson that we have learned during this pandemic, it is that health is not something to be taken for granted.