In an interview, Helen Clarke (our Prime Minister from 1999 to 2008) has labelled Trump’s decision to freeze contributions to WHO as foolish. “I can’t think of anything more foolish in the middle of a global pandemic which has gone beyond being a health crisis to being a full-blown economic and social crisis,” She said.
Trump had”no substantive point” in making the move based on his concerns about the organisation’s management of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“At the end of this ghastly matter… for sure the WHO will do a full review and lessons learned as it did after Ebola. And after Ebola where it had initially not responded well, a whole lot of new mechanisms were put in place, and that has put the WHO in a much better position this time to be handling the epidemic.
“But this is a virus which we knew absolutely nothing about four months ago, almost nothing about three months ago, and everybody is scrambling to keep up.
“So in a sense to defund and make accusations against WHO is to shoot the messenger, that’s been trying to tell the world for several months, that this is serious, and countries need to prepare.”
“Of course, he has half a point around the travel restrictions. WHO doesn’t advise those, and I think one of its concerns is that countries might be less honest and transparent if they knew they were going to be, those sorts of consequences,” Clark told Checkpoint.
“Obviously New Zealand also moved by the end of January to stop people who were not New Zealand citizens or residents coming from China, or even transiting through China in the previous 14 days,” she said.
“I understand the kind of sensitivities in the WHO around travel bans but countries like the US, New Zealand and many others have got on and put them on anyway.
Helen was critical of the delay in Beijing reporting the outbreak to WHO, but acknowledges this might be due to local factors and not the central government:
“On the issue of transparency, yes, of course, with an authoritarian society which doesn’t operate the way the US does or New Zealand does – with our free and open media, and the ability to say what you want and raise whatever questions you want – things are different.
“And the reality is there was knowledge in Wuhan at least a month before the notification of the disease to the WHO.
“I might say from my experience of dealing with China with such a critical issue, which was over the milk powder scandal back in 2008, our experience was that when we blew the whistle in Beijing, Beijing moved at the speed of lightning.
“Down at the regional level they’re not always so keen to tell Beijing about a problem. But if you go in at the top, Beijing can act very quickly, and my impression is that it may well be that the regional people withheld knowledge from Beijing, as well.”
Helen was also critical of the UN’s reaction the pandemic:
“There has been a crisis mechanism that was activated by WHO some weeks ago but it’s at the Mike Ryan director level. What Dr David Nabarro – who used to advise Ban Ki-moon on pandemic response – has recommended is that the Secretary-General should convene a pandemic emergency coordination council.
“I think that should be a standing body to be activated whenever something like this arises.
“This is the sixth public health emergency of international concern since 2003. On average, these horrible events are going to come around every three years.
“So a standing capacity, which would be the Secretary-General, the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and the Director-General of the WHO.
“Their networks are huge – the IMF and World Bank – they have the ears of every finance minister in the world.
“And what’s going to release money now for a response that will fight the health aspects of the virus, and the economic crisis and social crisis, is the finance ministers.”
Helen said another action the UN could make would be for the Secretary-General to go the Security Council to formally state the pandemic was a threat to global peace and security, and ask it to make a resolution to that effect.
“Security Council resolutions are binding. If it says that, as it did with Ebola six years ago, and calls on all member states to use all necessary means to fight it, that really ups the ante for global coordination.”