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Don’t make WHO a victim of the US-China rift

By Shashi Shekhar

Union health minister Harsh Vardhan has taken over as chairman of the World Health Organization (WHO) executive board, a position that is held on a rotational basis among regional groups in the 34-member board for a year.

This has happened at a difficult time for both the world and WHO. The world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). It is not that humanity has never been confronted by pandemics and natural disasters in the past.

But Covid-19 ranks as being unprecedented in living memory for most people. The minister will only have limited powers since this is not a full-time position, and his ability to guide WHO during this trying time will be challenging.

Vardhan’s task has been made more complicated by the fact that at least 100 members of the 194 World Health Assembly, which are signatories to the nomination of board members, are arraigned against China. They feel that the Chinese authorities did not share information on the coronavirus with the world on time. WHO has also been subject to criticism from the United States (US), which feels that it favored China despite evidence that Beijing was less-than-transparent in its supply of information on the virus.

The US recently announced that it will suspend WHO funding. The spat between China and the US, as well as China and many other countries who share suspicions about Beijing’s handling of the pandemic, has had an impact on the global effort to combat the pandemic. This will have a huge impact on our collective future.

If the US and its allies retreat from WHO, it will make the working of the organisation difficult both in terms of funding and global acceptance of its guidelines. Since its inception, WHO has faced several diplomatic obstacles. But this is the first time it has been caught in the middle of an emerging cold war between two mighty powers, the US and China.

WHO played a vital role in the eradication of polio and smallpox, and it can play an important role in the battle against Covid-19 if its role is seen as objective, and guided by medical and scientific expertise. Whatever the merits of the arguments against WHO, the world needs such an organisation in these fraught times.

We should also remember that leadership skills are tested in crises. India’s health minister has and continues to play an important role in the fight against Covid-19 in the country. Hopefully, his sage advice and wise counsel will prevail on the global stage in his new role in WHO.

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