It is increasingly obvious that if there was a set of globally enforceable rules regarding public health practices that all nations had to implement at the first signs of a possible pandemic, we would not be facing the catastrophic health and economic crisis we are facing today with the coronavirus.
What most people don't know is that in 2005, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) put in place a set of practices to prevent a coronavirus type pandemic. The strategy called for increased powers for the W.H.O. to co-ordinate a global fight against infectious diseases.
The present crisis shows that the W.H.O. strategy failed.
Why? Because political leaders in many nations (notably, but certainly not only, China) either bullied the W.H.O. into delaying the declaration of the coronavirus as a public health emergency, or ignored W.H.O. guidelines on how to stop the pandemic.
In other words, in a globalized world where millions travel outside their home countries every year, the organization whose purpose it is to protect world health has little clout over the jurisdictions that actually deliver public health services.
The lesson? In a globalized economy, we need a strong international public health organization that can force countries to implement agreed upon public health practices in a timely manner.
In other words, a globalized economy requires globalized public health.
This post concludes with some steps that can be taken to greatly empower the World Health Organization so that it has the clout to effectively fight pandemics such as the coronavirus.
Why we need the globalization of public health.
The tragedy of the current coronavirus pandemic is that the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) saw this coming as did public health officals around the world.
In 2005, the W.H.O. set out to develop a plan that would prevent the denial and inaction of one nation from putting many other nations at risk of a pandemic of a deadly disease.
Those 2005 reforms were the result of failure in China. In the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, China’s Ministry of Health was aware for months of a dangerous new type of pneumonia in Guangdong province before sharing that information with other nations or issuing a nationwide bulletin to hospitals and health professionals on preventing the spread of the disease. That virus spread to 29 countries, sickened thousands of people, and killed 774 before being brought under control in July 2003.
Yet the revised WHO health regulations did not stop the Chinese government from actively suppressing information that might have slowed or stopped the coronavirus outbreak. Nor did it prevent many countries, including the US and Canada, to ignore its warnings to conduct mass testing at an early stage before there was local transmission.
The coronavirus is going to bring a reckoning in global health governance. We need a much stronger World Health Organization that can't be bullied by countries such as China and ignored by countries such as the U.S.
The world needs the globalization of public health.