“We need well-financed, resilient, equitable and solid public health systems… public health systems are not machines to make money,” said Prof. Gian Luca Burci, former legal counsel, WHO, and Adjunct Faculty of International Law, Graduate Institute, Geneva. He was speaking at a webinar on ‘Resisting the COVID-19 Pandemic: How Effective are International Health Regulations 2015?’ organised by the Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth (CVV), Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), Kochi, and the Study Group on International Law and Relations, Kochi, on 8th May 2020. Prof. David Legge, Scholar Emeritus, School of Public Health and Human Biosciences, La Trobe University, Melbourne, K. M. Gopakumar, Third World Network and Nithin Ramakrishnan, Assistant Professor, International Law, CVV, were the other speakers.
Prof. Burci opined that neoliberal approaches will not work in times of an emergency and such models have failed us in the COVID-19 resistance, and therefore states need to invest. He said the current officials of WHO must take up active diplomacy to establish better coordination at the global level. He said that the current system within IHR of identifying outbreaks or epidemics as international emergencies is not efficient. The ‘either emergency or otherwise nothing’ policy creates, on the one hand, an unnecessary delay in the declaration of an emergency, and on the other hand, contributes to panic in the world.
Prof. David Legge suggested that the entire performance of the nation-states and WHO must be viewed from the framework of colonisation and protection of the interests of great powers. He remarked that most of the nations which failed in achieving core capacities in the national public health systems are those countries from which the wealth has been drained off by colonial powers. He said that the IHR 2005 fails to address the ecological and economic factors shaping the genesis of pandemic diseases.
K. M. Gopakumar called for more transparency and accountability in the meetings and decision-making of the Emergency Committees during the determination of the PHEIC. He highlighted the fact that the concept of ‘health security’ manifested in the IHR 2005 has a baggage of close association with military establishments of many colonial countries and the USA. He also pointed out the institutional weakness within WHO. He cautioned that nations will not invest in public health systems just to face pandemics. They need to build a robust health system, as a whole, and development assistance has to provide on a larger scale.
Summarising the discussions and points raised by the panellists, Asst. Prof. Nithin Ramakrishnan shared that all the panellists concurred that the future agenda needs to be the revamping of the International Health Regulations, 2005. The structural weaknesses of WHO are nothing but a continuance of the intellectual legacy of colonial times. This needs to be remedied through more inclusive norm-setting operations and more active commitments from wealthier nations. Panellists called for more support to WHO, despite its shortcomings, in resisting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.