With the evolution in technology and probable out-turn of globalization; the era of the 20th and 21st century has witnessed mutation of viruses into various genomes. This unceasingly leads to national and international health emergencies across the globe which directly attacks the healthcare system and the worst sufferers are developing nations that don’t have adequate facilities to face off such disasters. Thus, the World Health Organization plays a significant and crucial role in not only aiding nations to curb epidemics and pandemics but also issuing salient alerts worldwide to notify people of imminent disasters to lessen the figure of fatalities.
Role of WHO in handling major pandemics across the globe:
With an agenda to encourage universal healthcare, monitoring public health risks, coordinating responses to health emergencies, and promoting human health and well being, WHO was established on April 7, 1948. It is observed that WHOs response to pandemics since its establishment has upgraded and enhanced over the years. It is well stated in its constitution as well” the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health", however, amidst COVID-19 its reputation declined by not alarming the world at the early stages of the virus outbreak.
Let us see how WHO responded to four major outbreaks of the 20th and 21st century respectively.
1957-58: Asian Flu Pandemic
A new influenza H2N2 was spotted in East Asia with China its epicenter during February 1957, sparking a pandemic “Asian Flu”. The first case was reported in Singapore during February 1957, then detected in Hong Kong by April 1957 and slowly this influenza landed on coastal areas of the United States. After the first case was reported in Guizhou province of southwestern China in February 1957, it took nearly three months to gulp nearly 10 percent of the population of the same region who were receiving treatment, as reported by The Times. It was later recalled that in declaring the 1957 Flu Pandemic an International Health Emergency got missed by WHO.
The axis of the virus gradually shifted from East Asia to the USA, in response to which Dr. Maurice Hilleman commenced investigating this virus with his research team as they studied the flu virus in a lab at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. By gathering knowledge about previous deadly pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, 1918 Hilleman announced through a press release that a new flu pandemic had arrived, and would reach the United States by September 1957. Because of Hilleman's correct predictions, the country was well prepared with the vaccine by the time the flu strain hit the nation. As per reports, an estimated 70,000 to 116,000 Americans and one to four million people worldwide were killed, but experts suggest it would have killed many more if not for the vaccine.
1968 Influenza Pandemic: Hong Kong Virus
The 1968 influenza pandemic popularly referred to as Hong Kong Flu whose outbreak in 1968 and 1969 killed an estimated one million people worldwide, fewer than the 1957 flu pandemic. The first case was reported on July 13, 1968. Within a short period, outbreaks were reported in Vietnam and Singapore. Instead of WHO, it was The Times that alarmed other nations about the evolving pandemic.
By September 1968, the flu reached India, the Philippines, northern Australia, and Europe. By December, it became widespread in the US as the American troops were returning from the Vietnam war. It would reach Japan, Africa, and South America by 1969. By 1969, a peak was observed in worldwide fatalities During its transmission, The National Influenza Center at the University of Hong Kong immediately came in contact with World Influenza Centre, London, and the International Influenza Centre, Atlanta, Georgia by isolating the new influenza A(H3N2) virus on July 17 and resultant confirmation that the virus strain was a distinct antigenic variant of contemporary influenza viruses prompted a World Health Organization (WHO) warning on August 16. The situation was further aggravated as there was no travel ban and subsequently, nearly 160 million people worldwide facilitated the rapid transmission of flu.
The Hong Kong virus is suspected to be the evolution from the strain of influenza that caused the 1957 pandemic and the same virus proved calamitous a year later, in late 1969 and early 1970, and 1972. This pandemic occurred in two waves and the second proved to be more disastrous causing a greater number of deaths than the first wave.
2009 H1N1 Pandemic: Swine Flu
The pandemic in 2009 observed better and timely response from WHO in comparison to previous pandemics in alarming nations of an imminent disaster. This influenza virus originated in the US and began to spread in Mexico and the United States during early 2009. Unlike other viruses, this virus afflicted children and young people to a higher level.
On April 15, the first human infection was reported in California. By April 18, the first novel H1N1 flu infection was reported to WHO through the US international Health Regulation Programmes. WHO took 10 days to declare a public health emergency of international concern. On April 27, WHO Director-General raised the level of the pandemic from phase 3 to 4, based on reports of detection of human to human transmission. Within 2 days, WHO raised the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to 5, signaling that a pandemic was imminent and requested all countries to gear up their preparedness plan to combat influenza. Even after the early warning issued by WHO, the virus reached more than 70 countries as there was no ban on air travel. By the time WHO raised the level of the virus to phase 6, indicating the virus was spreading to other parts of the world, many countries advised against travel to North America, China amongst the many inflicting mandatory quarantines for patients and their close contacts
COVID- 19: 2019- Present
The ongoing pandemic COVID-19 has posed not only a threat to human lives but a bigger threat to the national and international economies as well. The COVID-19 pandemic is more than a health crisis; it is an economic crisis, a humanitarian crisis, a security crisis, and a human rights crisis., as stated by the UN. The disease was first reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, Hubei, China. However, the first confirmed case has been traced back to 17 November 2019 in Hubei. In the absence of proper guidance and direction to halt the spread of Coronavirus, the World’s best healthcare systems have cracked badly. With the number of rising cases each day, one can make an idea of its perilous nature. The response of WHO in handling this pandemic has been controversial. It has been accused of not providing timely information and pleasing the authoritarian People’s Republic of China. On December 30, 2019, WHO received a Chinese report of aberrant pneumonia. By January 5, 2020, WHO after its probing, notified member states of this unusual virus. By January 10, 2020, WHO confirmed the risk of human to human virus spread.
The Chinese government allegedly knew the disease was spreading. according to the South China Morning Post. On January 9th, the WHO said that China informed them the virus does not transmit between people. The number of cases skyrocketed soon after that. Still, WHO entirely relied on information given by Chinese officials who have already been accused of concealing and mystifying the data and information related to the prevention of this disease.
The questionable stand of WHO amidst COVID-19:
WHO has a lot to answer for its mishandling of the Virus. Since the first case got reported in December 2019 it took WHO nearly 4 months to finally announce it as a pandemic. WHO Director-General in his statement on February 3, 2020, condemned the travel ban and found it an irrelevant and redundant step to beat Wuhan Virus and denounced some countries for putting travel restrictions on China. WHO forthrightly supported China at a time it was facing international isolation due to restrictions of flights to and from the country.
WHO failed to execute its primary and foremost responsibility of notifying nations timely of invisible threats. Due to this reason, the WHO has sabotaged its credibility by exposing its unreasonable bias towards China. In various press releases, the WHO Director-General was heard lauding China for its transparency in handling this outbreak.
The part played by WHO is facing intense criticism across the globe due as a result of which in the 73rd World Health Assembly on May 18, 2020, nearly 50 nations have signed the pact for recalling the constitution of WHO, transparent investigation of the outbreak, and questioning WHO’s strategic and preparedness response plan. The pact will help the worst affected sections of society in particular the low- and middle-income and developing countries by strengthening Primary Health Care.
What’s the probable solution?
With its continuous amendments, WHO in 2005 rewrote the new rules to provide collective defenses against global health challenges and enhance pandemic preparedness and response plans by stating that states should notify WHO of potential global health emergencies. It also grants the WHO Director-General the authority to announce a public health emergency of International Concern or, PHEIC. In the same way, the WHO needs amendments in its constitution. It is hoped that the pact signed on May 18, 2020, in the 73rd World Health Assembly would bring further changes in the constitution of WHO to provide timely health services to all the sections of society and ensure transparency, by keeping itself away from the political influences which could prove disastrous in terms of health for everyone, the way it has been seen in COVID -19. During health emergencies, global health governance requires significant WHO leadership and effective enactment of WHO's core global functions to offer health security and ensuring better effectiveness of all health actors.
In the 21st century, globalization has accelerated the spread of infectious disease and the sudden outbreak of pandemics. Therefore, it's high time that WHO needs to revise and review its policies to establish proper elucidation with its member states for timely research and analysis of any probable pandemic or outbreak and act as a safeguard for the general public’s health in the following ways.
•Promoting the establishment of a robust healthcare system in developing countries with the help of developed nations.
•On the basis of previous pandemics and epidemics origin’s, harmful, and indigestible species need to be identified to stop their consumption.
• To cease any outbreak, the travel ban should be imposed primarily.
This pandemic has posed many questions on every nation’s healthcare sector. Not only this, COVID- 19 has put health on the essential agenda for every company. New research by the McKinsey Global Institute presents that making prudent investments in the health of the world’s population can dramatically improve people’s quality of life, protect against downside risks such as pandemics, and lead to large economic returns from increased output and productivity. A new report, Prioritizing Health: A Prescription for Prosperity estimates that poor health reduces global GDP by 15% each year — about twice the pandemic’s likely negative impact in 2020 — from premature deaths and lost productive potential among the working-age population.
In the same research, it has been examined that 70% of the economic benefits could be achieved with hygienic and safer environments, supporting the adoption of healthier behaviors, and more access to vaccines and preventive medicine. The remainder would come from treating diseases and acute conditions with proven therapies, including proper medication and surgery. Thus, to achieve health improvements this is a requisite.
In collaboration with International agencies such as WHO and UNESCO, national agencies must start providing basic health education such as building a strong immunity system, the importance of cleanliness in the surrounding, etc. to combat such pandemics in the future. To deal with such outbreaks in the future and making ourselves prepared, health should be made a social and economic priority especially in developing nations that don’t have the requisite health infrastructures.