The Geneva Observer
November 19, 2020
This article is a republished version of our newsletter briefing sent out on Thursday November 19, 2020. Sign up to our newsletter to get our content the moment it's published, straight in your inbox.
We hope you are keeping well and staying safe.
Today in The Geneva Observer, hanging together or hanging separately? That is the question—and challenge—that WTO Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff poses on the WTO’s 25th birthday today in his piece in The G|O. An anniversary is not necessarily a cause for celebration. But the point Alan Wolff makes, and concretely illustrates, is that however imperfect, the WTO is needed today more than ever: "More trade, not less, will assure food security in the face of both the pandemic and severe climate events.”
If there is any cause for celebration, it is knowing that with the entry of the Biden administration, the ideological drive aimed at abolishing it will no longer find currency in official Washington. There is nevertheless plenty of room for profound reforms at all levels of the WTO, from its governance to its rules and practices. Those reforms will take time, but they are necessary:
“A well-functioning WTO would serve as a forum for governments to bridge differences, define shared rules for international markets, and build trust that would help them address other global challenges. … Failing to update the WTO to make it respond to members’ needs and business realities will cause governments to look elsewhere.”
But as Wolff’s piece makes clear, and as vaccines against COVID-19 are about to be produced on a large scale, “more trade, not less” is necessary. The challenges of globally delivering and administering a vaccine which might need to be stored at -70°c are unprecedented. This study shows why. “Ramping up production of cold chain equipment, leveraging existing value chains will be more efficient and cheaper than the alternatives,” writes Wolff, adding “the fact is that more trade, not less will bring essential supplies, drugs, and soon, we earnestly hope, vaccines to where they are needed.”
A mixed bag at WHO
This morning Ethiopian Army Chief of Staff General Birhanu Jula held a press conference where he accused Dr Tedros of supporting and trying to get weapons for the dominant political party in the Ethiopian state of Tigray. Dr Tedros was a senior Minister in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front-led government for over ten years (health minister 2005-2012; foreign minister, 2012-2016), before being elected as the first African WHO D-G. A recent military operation was launched by the Ethiopian army in response to the reported occupation of a military base by regional Tigrayan forces several weeks ago. OCHA has warned over the past couple of days that the conflict there is intensifying, and UNHCR called the situation unfolding in the region a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.”
General Birhanu Jula knows the UN well. In 2014 he was appointed Force Commander of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) by former UN chief Ban Ki-Moon. So far, he has offered no proof for his very serious accusations.
Although the story has been picked up by a number of major news outlets throughout the day, WHO has not yet responded to the allegations despite various requests for comment.*
The G|O understands that senior diplomats from major donor nations are looking into the claims, although this is hard as the army chief hinted he had evidence but held back from providing any during the press conference. ICRC, UNOCHA, UNHCR, WFP and the UN Chief are very active on humanitarian response, but there have so far been no humanitarian updates from WHO. Diplomats tell The G|O that some WHO staff were “frustrated” over WHO’s lack of guidance in relation to the crisis.
These accusations could complicate matters at WHO and potentially divert its attention at a critical juncture. They should not however obscure a very significant piece of good news on the health front:
WHO declared this week that latest DRC Ebola outbreak has ended. Key to ending the epidemic was vaccinating thousands of persons in the northern region of DRC. WHO is very positive that lessons have been learned from distribution the Ebola vaccine, which also required deep freeze handling. “The technology used to keep the Ebola vaccine at super-cold temperatures will be helpful when bringing a COVID-19 vaccine to Africa,” said WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti.
The silent pandemic: antimicrobial resistance
Did you know it was World Antimicrobial Awareness Week or WAAW? No? us neither. Antimicrobial resistance (or AMR) occurs when diseases develop to resist the effects of the medications used to treat or prevent them. It is—to put it mildly—a problem. It makes common infections harder to treat, increasing the risk of disease spread, severe illness and death. For example, it can (and does) turn tuberculosis—a disease which, though serious, is curable with drugs at around US$ 5—into multidrug resistant tuberculosis (or if you’re extremely unlucky, extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis). An illness that, if it doesnt' kill you, can take years to cure, requiring much more expensive treatments that have far more serious side effects than ‘normal’ tuberculosis drugs. It is already estimated that 700,000 people a year die from drug resistant infections. That is to say infections that normally could be treated, but that because of AMR have become untreatable, or not treatable with the available medicines. If unchecked, it’s predicted that this number could go up well into the millions over the next decade. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Keith Sumption, “AMR is spreading. It is affecting every country on the planet, and so in that sense, it is already a pandemic.” The issue is that AMR is driven by human behaviour. It is due to the misuse and overuse of antimicrobial drugs in human medicine, in veterinary medicine, and food production. It therefore requires a combined effort of medical, veterinary, agricultural, and environmental policies to change the way we use antimicrobials at a large scale and at an individual scale is key to dealing with the issue. Described variously as a “complex governance challenge” or as “arguably amongst the most complex threats to global health security,” the UN system has been proactive in trying to tackle this problem. WHO joined with the FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to form a “Tripartite” which has partnered with the European Commission to take action. (If you’re interested in their work, they are holding an “infopoint virtual conference” next week on November 24). WAAW “aims to encourage awareness of global antimicrobial resistance and to encourage best practices among the general public, health workers and policy makers to avoid the further emergence and spread of drug-resistant infections.” It is part of that global action plan used to tackle the problem that was set up and voted on at the World Health Assembly in 2015, and the action plan has been successful in bringing attention to the issue. It will hope to capitalise on what the COVID-19 pandemic has shown: the dramatic potential impact of global health security threats, as well as the fact that massive behaviour change is possible.
And finally, as a follow-up to our seafarers story from last week, the draft resolution on the 400,000 seafarers currently trapped on board ships because of COVID-19 that had been jointly submitted by Employers and Workers towards the later stages of the ILO’s governing body meeting last week was not voted on. Because of the complexities involved and the late submission, the governing body agreed to continue consulting key players on the matter with a view to adopting a resolution by correspondence as a matter of urgency. During the virtual meeting, the ILO was also instructed to start consultations on the adoption of a global response resolution for next year’s International Labour Conference. If you’re interested in the world of labour’s critical juncture, you could check out the Future of Work Summit next week online (hosted by the Graduate Institute). On more post COVID-19 world-shaping, we also want to remind you that the Young Activists Summit is tomorrow.
All the best, The Geneva Observer
* Dr Tedros' statement was released a few minutes after the Briefing was sent out. Here it is: