#30 The G|O Briefing, January 14, 2021

Confidential report says WHO and the world were ill prepared for the pandemic | From the US Capitol to International Geneva | America as an empire

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in the Geneva Observer, we obtained the much-awaited preliminary conclusions of the independent panel created to investigate how the WHO and its member states responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some very serious reforms in the International Health Regulations system are needed, says the panel.
We also analyze how the latest events in Washington will condition the American re-engagement with multilateralism. And on our website, Daniel Warner reviews a prescient book analyzing imperial American history from a global perspective.

The few weeks between today and our last Briefing have been rich in profoundly significant developments for International Geneva.

We left you as coronavirus vaccines were on the cusp of being approved and as a team of public servants, all seasoned and committed to multilateralism was being assembled by Joe Biden, the president-elect. For the most part, International Geneva applauded the promise of a swift American re-engagement with multilateralism. However, the dystopian scenes of the Capitol's storming on January 6 have revealed the depth of America's political crisis. It will impact the speed and the dynamics of Washington's re-engagement with the multilateral system. On issues central to International Geneva, allies and partners will reassess their position, from trade to human rights.

Perfunctory statements have already been made. Some actions, such as rejoining the WHO or paying delinquent dues, will likely be taken in the very early days of the new administration. But beyond these predictable low-hanging fruits, International Geneva will not be a priority for the new administration. Geneva will look very far away from Washington: the energies of the incoming team will be consumed by the need to tackle a series of unprecedented and daunting domestic crises. It is only by aggressively and successfully addressing them early on that Joe Biden and the Democrats will be able to regain the trust of a great many disillusioned voters that fell for the MAGA promise. The new president and his team will thus have to return carefully to the multilateral arena—often synonymous with uncontrolled globalization and economic devastation—so as not to exacerbate the current fragmentation and polarization of the American political landscape. Managing globalization in a post-pandemic world in a way that benefits the American workers will require very skillful diplomacy and shrewd politics. In the current American political climate, reconnecting domestic and foreign economic policies could well be the most important step of the Biden administration to lay the foundations of a foreign policy that addresses one of the main concerns of a majority of American voters.

Western countries and traditional American allies are undoubtedly happy to see a renewed commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation. That doesn't mean, however, that they are willing to simply accept an American return on the international scene—Geneva included—based on the premise that "for 70 years, the United States (…) played a leading role in writing the rules" that "advance collective security and prosperity," as Joe Biden wrote in a widely commented Foreign Affairs piece last March. Not only has the world changed, but after its inept response to the pandemic, the revelations about the massive penetration of its digital infrastructure, and the mayhem in Washington, America appears to be dysfunctional and its credibility in tatters.

"The US should create the world we would like to live in when we are no longer the world's only superpower." - Bill Clinton

The storming of the Capitol has heightened the stakes, but American allies had already taken notice of the damage inflicted by Trump on America's standing in the world. Not heeding the incoming administration's wish to delay its signing, a newly emboldened Europe forged ahead over the new year and agreed to the principle of a Comprehensive Agreement on Investments with China. For many observers, it was a snub to Washington and a victory for Beijing, concerned about the formation of an EU-US alliance to contain China's growing influence and one of the avowed priorities on Biden's foreign policy team. The return of an active, engaged US to the multilateral arena is vital. Now, however, might be the time to do it by following Bill Clinton's exhortation that the US "should create the world we would like to live in when we are no longer the world's only superpower."


Meanwhile, on the Global Health front:

The much-expected preliminary conclusion of the Review Committee on the functioning of the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005)—think of them as the guidelines to fight an epidemic—during the COVID-19 response are in and they are clear: the IHR need to be overhauled.

Obtained by The Geneva Observer, the preliminary findings by the panel set up last September conclude that:

  • While expressing overwhelming support for the Regulations, member states and experts insist that several areas need improving in order for the world to be better prepared for the next pandemic.
  • The respective roles and responsibilities of the WHO Secretariat and the States Parties must be made clearer and more transparent. Particularly, a better understanding of the constraints and limitations to the Secretariat imposed by the the provisions of the International Health Regulations (2005) is necessary to optimize the management of a pandemic.
  • The panel also points to a lack of high-level political support both at the international and national levels. As a consequence, resources are often insufficient to fully implement the Regulations.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed significant gaps in pandemic preparedness in countries across the world, including in the areas of surveillance, health systems, equipment and training, essential public health functions and the role of national IHR focal points, emergency legislation, risk communication and coordination.
  • The panel also concludes that the lack of robust compliance evaluation and accountability mechanisms identified during its review reduces incentives for adequate preparedness and cooperation under the Regulations. At the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, it has deterred timely notifications of events and public health information. Such criticism by member states and experts was primarily raised in regard to the adoption of additional health measures that should have been taken given the global nature of the pandemic and its economic consequences.

The Review Committee was created last September by WHO’s D-G Tedros Ghebreyesus under pressure by key member states as a follow-up to a resolution of the World Health Assembly.

Its preliminary conclusions will be submitted on Monday to the Executive Board of the organization. These preliminary conclusions are accompanied by several recommendations. Among the different solutions the group advocates is the creation of a “peer-review” mechanism based on the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council. It would enhance the pressure on governments to be ready at all times.

Such a proposal is bound to be controversial as Member States would find it difficult to conceal the true state of their respective preparedness in combatting a pandemic.

“A peer-review mechanism may be useful in improving preparedness and response, as well as compliance with States Parties’ legal obligations under the Regulations,” states the report. “The Universal Periodic Review has been shown to foster intersectoral coordination and whole-of-government approaches, to encourage good practices, and to link implementation of its recommendations with the Sustainable Development Goals and other government agendas—all of which are vital to strengthening IHR core capacities,” asserts the report.

So, was China late in informing the WHO and the world?

Touching on a highly sensitive point, the group also explored how the communication chain between States Parties and the WHO Secretariat in the very early days of the pandemic, zeroing in on practices in the Regulations that may have led to delays.

According to the Committee’s intermediate report, “Initial alerts between China and WHO were based on several sources of information, including ProMED, part of the Epidemic Intelligence from Open Sources (EIOS) initiative, media reports, Chinese television and social media.”

An announcement made by the Wuhan Health Commission of a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause was identified by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO country office through routine epidemic intelligence activities,” it says.

WHO requested verification of these reports on 1 January 2020 and received a response from the China National IHR Focal Point on 3 January 2020. “Such response timings do not seem to be any different in scope and duration from other similar delays (beyond the 24 hours required by the IHR) reported by WHO and some of the national IHR focal points interviewed by the Committee,” it says.

The problem is compounded by the speed at which information of all kind circulates today.   “The Committee considers that the timelines required by the Regulations for States Parties’ notification are not realistic given that the speed and ubiquitous presence of social media results in information reaching the public domain before countries have concluded a comprehensive risk assessment. The limited authority and status of the national IHR focal points often leads to delays in notification. Another consideration is that countries may be reluctant to report on events if they perceive consequences, mainly related to travel and trade, deriving from early notification. The current IHR requirements for notification and verification, as well as information sharing by WHO, need further examination,” conclude the writers of the report.


Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Daniel Warner

Edited by: Paige Holt