The article looks into the need for reforming and restructuring global institutions like WHO and make them more effective in taking prompt decisions during emergencies like COVID-19 and face new challenges of the twenty-first century. 

Image Source: Bloomberg via Getty Images ( Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Today, most nations (over 196) of the world have declared an unprepared war against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) which first erupted in the Wuhan city of China in December, 2019. This pandemic, a huge threat to humanity, is by far the biggest since the First World War and the Flu of 1918–1919.

The outbreak has become a global phenomenon in a record span of time, posing the biggest threat to healthcare systems. The situation has become more frightening in the developing economies which are now strategically tweaked as emerging economies for reaping the market potentials which are not entrusted often in mutual interests.

Global institutions like the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO), etc. seem to have underestimated the menace erroneously for at least a few crucial weeks of January and February, 2020. These institutions failed to sense the spread of the virus and communicate it to the developing countries and the rest of the world to get prepared for taking necessary actions to prevent the spread.

Of late, on 11 March, 2020, the UN had announced a state of emergency that sent shock waves across the world. Given the fragile system of functioning of the WHO during crises, it is really not surprising. The global institutions have at times misused their power leaning towards the West vis-à-vis East benefiting neither but resulting in their failure.

Despite having many international organisations of governance and collective efforts and voices stretched after the World War II, the world does not seem to be united, breaking the egos of national interests of countries, for peace and prosperity in the larger interests of humanity. In the past, unprecedented events of ideological revolutionary leaning of nations, territorial disputes, cross-border terror threats, sharing of natural resources, economic depression, economic co-operation, climate change, technology revolution, space exploration, etc. have really tested the efficacy of global institutions’ resilience and manifestation of remedies beyond mere lip services rendered for the strategic nudge.

This casts doubt on the ability of global institutions like the United Nations (UN) and its allied institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO), The World Bank Group, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), etc. Besides, given their last three decades of experience in dealing with emergency situations, the best these institutions could do was merely document what had happened in the past rather than taking any efforts towards prevention of such events in the future.

In the wake of the novel COVID-19 outbreak, some of the advanced economies like the United States, Spain, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Europe, etc. were in the belief that they were prepared to face human sufferings and horrific deaths, but were unable to do so despite having the most advanced healthcare systems in the world.

For the past several decades, almost every global institution is coercively controlled by these nations with their colonial mentality and preaching to the Third World Countries. The coronavirus outburst across the world is a strong case to assess the governance structure of the UN-funded institutions like the WHO, having 194 member states, which miserably failed to gauge the real situation in Wuhan city and Italy for several weeks after the massive outburst.

During a pandemic, is it wise to divide the affected people according to their nationalities and deport them to their countries? Does it not further lead to the spread of the disease among millions of people? We should try to answer these questions and think of the possibility of setting up a powerful and well-equipped global institution with a good governance system that can support the medical treatment of people affected by diseases like COVID-19 in the same country where they work and live.

History has taught us many lessons and we should learn from our past mistakes. Unlike in 2020, there was no influential global institution in 1918–19 to manage the Flu epidemic which rampaged and complicated world humanity during the First World War. Nevertheless, the world has changed since 1918. The Chinese government should have acted promptly and taken seriously the outbreak of coronavirus in the month of January 2020 itself, and communicated about the disease to the world much faster than their usual suspect mode without relying solely on the WHO.

Siddharth Chandra and Eva Kassens-Noor’s 2014 research paper titled “The Evolution of Pandemic Influenza: Evidence from India, 1918–19” has scientifically documented the devastating pandemic of Spanish Flu of 1918–19 and its impacts on India. The data on peoples’ death were collected for a five year period from 1916 to 1920 covering 9 provinces like Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, Bombay, Central Provinces, Madras, Northwest Frontier Province, Punjab and United Provinces.

They have estimated that about 10 to 20 million people died due to the Spanish Flu in 213 districts across 9 provinces in British India. Across the world, the death toll was between 20 and 50 million people. The study concludes that the entry point of the first wave of the disease and the time taken for calibrated efforts towards emergency management are crucial. A basic analysis of the study reveals that the focal point of a pandemic spreading across the country from the entry of its first wave needs to be studied for the future course of action which seems to be terribly missed out by both China and WHO in the case of COVID-19 outbreak.

Perhaps, the world is divided in the war against coronavirus by taking measures that are not universal in nature but country-specific or nationalist. The leaders of many countries are taking strong decisions to fight the virus with time-bound goals to contain its spread. A country like India has very limited resources given the poor status of its healthcare infrastructure facilities to cope up with such a kind of pandemic.

The Indian urban areas are thickly populated with many people still following a joint family culture and living together in a house. This makes it practically difficult for them to follow the norms like social distancing, quarantine, etc. However, in the past, India had fought against diseases like smallpox, polio, etc. Hence, if we follow strict measures, it will not be an impossible task to fight the coronavirus epidemic. But at this juncture, it is difficult to predict the scale of this pandemic and how it can affect the whole world and humanity in particular.

Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research

Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan
Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan
Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan is Research Fellow (Urban Eco-system and Skill Development) with CPPR. His areas of research interest are economics of education, vocational education and skills development, economic reforms, liberal vision for India, water management, regional development, and city development. Chandrasekaran has an MA in Economics (University of Madras) and an MPhil in Social Sciences (Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya University, Indore).

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