A tense World Health Assembly as Ukraine and the West plan to further sanction Russia

Since the start of Russia’s war, the WHO has recorded over 177 attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine, with 73 deaths. It should come as no surprise that with such dramatic figures, the Russian army’s behavior in Ukraine will rank high on the agenda of the World Health Assembly’s (WHA) next annual meeting. “These attacks deprive people of urgently needed care, endanger healthcare providers, and undermine health systems,” the WHO said in a statement. It is likely that such attacks will be investigated as possible war crimes by Ukraine and others.

The May session was supposed to deal with the global efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and begin the process of strengthening the international body. This could now take second billing, as diplomatic sources and WHO watchers tell The G|O that Ukraine, with the Western powers and their allies, will aggressively challenge Russia—and they have laid out several scenarios to do so.

Initially, the most extreme measure considered was to push for a resolution to altogether suspend the Russian Federation from the WHO. But it became clear in the first discussions that the votes for such a drastic measure would be lacking.

According to knowledgeable sources, Ukraine and the EU will now demand that Russia be excluded from participating in technical groups and that the WHO’s Moscow office be closed. The text may also condemn Russia for the attacks on Ukrainian health facilities.

Last week, Ukraine and some thirty countries wrote to the World Health Organization requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the consequences of Russia’s invasion on health care in Ukraine. The meeting was coordinated by WHO’s European Office.

For many in the organization, the fear is that the war and the diplomatic disputes will again, as in other fora, end up overshadowing other longstanding issues—in this case, the need to strengthen the agency’s capacity to respond to future pandemics.

Another issue on the agenda is the budget. A preliminary agreement indicates that governments have reached an understanding that the agency’s budget will be increased by 50 percent by 2031.

The discussion about the Russian crisis is also likely to draw focus from one of the most contentious issues of the last two years: the investigation into the origin of COVID-19. On that front, China is still refusing to accept a new visit by an WHO delegation.