The 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) convened on May 18-19, 2020. For the first time ever, representatives from the WHO’s 194 member-states came together virtually instead of in Geneva, Switzerland, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting’s overarching focus was to chart a path toward overcoming the novel coronavirus, which has infected over 5 million and killed over 350 thousand globally. In his opening remarks, WHO Director-General Tedros stated that “now, more than ever, we need a stronger WHO” to meet this defining health crisis of our time.
Contrary to this message, the 73rd WHA exposed growing tensions between the US and the WHO that could weaken the organization. U.S. President Trump did not address the WHA alongside other global leaders, instead sending a letter to D-G Tedros accusing WHO of an “alarming” dependence on China, and threatening to pull WHO funding and U.S. membership permanently unless substantial reforms were made. President Trump later announced he would pull the US from the WHO on May 29, 2020.
Despite diplomatic tensions, the 73rd WHA adopted a resolution to bring the world together in the fight against COVID-19. The resolution calls on countries, international organizations, and the WHO to take action to end the pandemic. However, achieving this result requires global solidarity, including US support.
A Resolution to Combat COVID-19
On May 19, 2020, the 73rd WHA adopted WHA73.1, a resolution co-sponsored by more than 130 countries to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Its provisions call for:
- National action plans to strengthen health systems. The resolution calls on member-states to implement national action plans to strengthen their health systems to respond to COVID-19, while maintaining capacity to address routine health needs relating to communicable and noncommunicable diseases, mental health, mother and child health, and improved nutrition. Plans should emphasize the needs of the most vulnerable, protect against financial hardship, and prevent violence, discrimination, and marginalization.
- Cross-border movement of health personnel, equipment, and information. Member-states are to ensure that restrictions on the movement of medical supplies and personnel during COVID-19 are limited so that health care workers can fulfill their duties, and medicines can be sent where needed most. Member states and international organizations should also work to share accurate information about the pandemic, and counter misinformation globally.
- Equitable testing, treatment, and care. All persons should be provided safe access to COVID-19 testing, treatment, and care, with particular attention to persons with underlying conditions, the elderly, and those facing heightened risk, such as frontline health care workers. Health care workers should also be provided sufficient personal protective equipment.
- Collaborative Research and Development. The resolution calls on member-states and international organizations to collaborate to promote R&D of measures to contain COVID-19, including vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics, and to support mechanisms for timely, equitable, and affordable access to them.
- Sustainable WHO funding. The resolution recognizes that member-states must provide WHO with sustainable funding so that WHO can leave no one behind in its COVID-19 response. UN agencies raised their urgent call for $2 billion to $6.7 billion to support the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan. As of May 5, only about $923 million had been received.
- Evaluation of WHO’s COVID-19 response. The resolution calls on D-G Tedros to “initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment,” an independent evaluation of the WHO’s COVID-19 response, including: 1) effectiveness of the tools at WHO’s disposal; 2) role and implementation of the International Health Regulations (IHR), 3) WHO’s contribution to UN-led efforts, and 4) WHO’s actions in the timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recommendations are to be issued to improve WHO’s pandemic preparedness and response capacities.
The Antidote to our Shared Threat
The new WHA resolution charts a path to ending the COVID-19 pandemic, and strengthening global health security for the future. But to stop a virus that knows no borders, the path is only effective if all countries commit to following it. As D-G Tedros said in his closing remarks to the 73rd WHA, “let our shared humanity be the antidote to our shared threat.” Yet if the US ends its WHO membership and funding, the US will put far more than its legacy as a global health leader at stake. Without global unity in fighting COVID-19, the whole world remains at risk.