A Dose of Communicative Multilateralism: Getting the WHO and Member States to speak the same language amidst the Coronavirus crisis 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), holds a virtual briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic. 22 May 2020 United Nations, New York. Photo: UN
By Elizabeth Deheza and Srgjan Kerim

The COVID-19 blame game is underway and it has already severely inhibited the implementation of a co-ordinated, multilateral response to fight the coronavirus. When the need is greatest for international cooperation and collective action to confront the most severe global challenge since the Second World War, world leaders are moving away from globalisation and public trust in international institutions is evaporating. We believe this divisive behaviour has been compounded by the lack of clear communication between the World Health Organization (WHO) and Member States and that ‘communicative multilateralism’ must play the central role in beating the virus. 

The WHO, a United Nations (UN) specialised agency, has a mandate from its 193 Member States to provide science-based recommendations to protect human health worldwide. The agency had been calling for better preparedness for epidemics or pandemics long before the current crisis, highlighting the vulnerability of many healthcare systems towards such crises. Unfortunately, when the moment arrived, the absence of a clear and simple communication framework and common understanding between the WHO and the Members States undermined previous work and the goodwill the agency once enjoyed.

When several cases of pneumonia were first reported in Wuhan, China in late December 2019, the WHO noted the new threat and started independent epidemiological investigations to understand the cause. WHO’s communications stayed close to China’s official line and even endorsed a preliminary investigation that the virus might be limited to animal-to-human transmission, despite warnings from Taiwan of the possibility of human-to-human transmission.

Later, on 10th January, the WHO released an interim Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) guidance note for Member States and on 14th January it warned hospitals of the possibility that the virus could spread between humans. On 20th January China confirmed human-to-human transmission and after a further ten days of deliberation, while the virus was already spreading internationally, the WHO declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) – one of its highest levels of alert under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR), a legally binding agreement between Member States to work together on global health security. At this point, several Member States became anxious, but most did not have a clear idea of what a PHEIC alert actually meant in the context of their response.

Moreover, if clearer communication had come from the WHO in a more timely fashion, even the most self-interested and ill-prepared Member State would have known what pre-cautions to take as the viral threat grew and their citizens could have held their governments accountable.

On 4th February, WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the world had a “window of opportunity” to invest in prevention and control as there were a limited number of confirmed cases outside China. By 21st February Dr Ghebreyesus called the international community to action as “the window of opportunity was narrowing”. How did Member States really interpret this message? Was the international community really grasping the idea that we were about to miss the last opportunity to contain the spread of the virus? Was it already too late?

As February rolled into March, the WHO highlighted a huge shortage of equipment for frontline healthcare around the world and finally on 11th March, nearly three months after the first reports, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Throughout April, the WHO made desperate calls to global leaders to put aside any differences, step up collaboration and act in unison. However, by this point, some Member States were struggling to stay ahead of the virus and could only think of themselves, instating measures to protect their citizens and borders without the time to consider a concerted multilateral response.

At the time of writing, with over 5.2 million coronavirus cases reported globally, more than 336,000 deaths and many more unreported cases, the pandemic still rages on. While China claimed to have recovered from the virus, its north-eastern city of Shulan is currently in lockdown after a cluster of coronavirus cases emerged, fearing a second wave. Meanwhile, its political adversary on the issue, the United States, has more than 1.6 million confirmed cases with more than 95,000 deaths, the highest in the world. Other regions like Europe are slowly emerging from strict lockdowns but in Latin America the number of confirmed cases has passed half a million and continues to rise, with Brazil the worst affected.

Global Deaths Due to Various Causes and COVID-19

This is the first truly global health crisis that “We the Peoples” have suffered since the foundation of the UN: every citizen of the world is at risk. The pandemic has forced governments to impose draconian restrictions in an attempt to mitigate the collapse of their public health systems while simultaneously injecting unimaginable levels of capital directly into their economies to soften the financial impact. And yet, if all the governments had rapidly coordinated their responses, collaborated at an early stage and acted in unison, the global impact may have been contained and the recovery period shortened. Moreover, if clearer communication had come from the WHO in a more timely fashion, even the most self-interested and ill-prepared Member State would have known what pre-cautions to take as the viral threat grew and their citizens could have held their governments accountable.

Unfortunately, to date, the UNSC has not produced any meaningful statement to tackle COVID-19 as efforts have been obstructed by political conflicts between the U.S. and China.

The wider UN has also been lacklustre in its response. Who better than the UN to digest WHO’s early warning messages and convey the right message to its Member States? Who better than the UN to orchestrate a coherent global response through its Security Council (UNSC)? “The UN has a huge role to play in bringing together countries and people during these trying times,” says Amir Dossal, President of the Global Partnerships Forum, to ensure that “no one is left behind”.

There are 3 articles of the UN Charter that clearly determine the UN’s role in such emergency situations: Article 13 refers to the UN General Assembly’s role in initiating international cooperation on economic, social and health issues, Article 57 describes the need of engaging specialised agencies, such as the WHO, and eventually under Article 99, the UN Secretary General must bring forward any matter which may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security to the attention of the Security Council. Unfortunately, to date, the UNSC has not produced any meaningful statement to tackle COVID-19 as efforts have been obstructed by political conflicts between the U.S. and China.

Secretary-General António Guterres launches a COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan together with Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator; Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO); and Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Photo: UN

While the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has referred to the pandemic as “the biggest challenge since the Second World War” and has acknowledged that “normal rules no longer apply”, the General Assembly started to address COVID-19 only in mid-March and its response has not passed beyond a non-binding resolution that called for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the coronavirus.

Despite WHO’s leadership through the SARS, MERS, Ebola, Avian Flu outbreaks and its extensive knowledge of past pandemics throughout history, Member States have voiced their frustration at the WHO’s handling of the pandemic. One of the organizations biggest donors, the U.S., has even suspended its funding and has threatened to withdraw its membership if substantial changes are not made. Other countries, such as Australia, have requested more transparency and an independent investigation of the causes of the coronavirus outbreak. A resolution, presented by the European Union (EU), on behalf of 100 Member States, called for an independent inquiry into the WHO’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and was approved at the first virtual annual assembly (WHA) of the WHO’s 194 members on 20th May. The day before, on 19th May, an interim independent review on the WHO’s conduct and response to the virus was released by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC) for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.

Communication is the most important tool in any international crisis and ‘communicative multilateralism’ must be at the core of all response strategies. The IOAC report calls for “greater global solidarity and stronger multilateral cooperation” but a close reading of the recommendations underlines the clear need to improve the clarity of the communication framework between the WHO and its Member States.

‘Communicative multilateralism’ has also been at the heart of suggested reforms by the IOAC report to the WHO’s response framework. It has been reported that some Member States do not consider a PHEIC declaration a “sufficiently clear trigger” due to its broad coverage between a small outbreak and a pandemic. Alpo Rusi, a distinguished Finnish diplomat recently told us, “A more effective early warning system needs to be urgently set up at the UN”. There have been other sensible calls for change including, “a stepped level of alerts and galvanization of response measures added to the IHR” and “IHR-nominated focal points in governments to adequately raise the alarm”, that must be heeded.

Additionally, the people must be able to hold their governments to account and how can they do this without clear and simple communication, well defined categories of alert and detailed response measures from the WHO? “Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on the health and economic well-being of our society. As individuals, we have readily conceded life-changing decision-making to our leaders, and we now assume and indeed expect them to do what is in our best interest”, exemplifies Amir Dossal, President of the Global Partnerships Forum.

The IOAC’s recommendations provide the opportunity to explore further the mechanisms already in place and well known by Member States that could “trigger” a much needed sense of urgency that the WHO tried but failed to convey to the international community. Lessons could be learned from other disaster response strategies, for example, there are clear and simple categories of alert to the likely effects of hurricanes and earthquakes that have been tried and tested for over 50 years and are widely understood by governments, scientists and the public alike. There are clear lessons that the WHO and the UN can learn from such natural disaster response systems.

Clear communication channels only work if the message is simple and the recipients are educated on the subject.

There is a general understanding that this pandemic will have far-reaching political, economic and social implications. Parag Khana, an expert on international relations told us, “If we are lucky, the world will pass ‘peak virus’ within the next six months. But the economy, governments, and social institutions will take years to recover in the best-case scenario. Indeed, rather than even speak of ‘recovery,’ which implies a return to how things were, it would be wise to project what new direction civilization will take. That too will be a bumpy ride. The next 3-5 years will remind us that COVID-19 was the lightning before the thunder”.

There are opportunities to improve following any crisis but before we transform the way society has functioned for hundreds of years, we must determine whether multilateralism and globalization is to blame or if there are other weaknesses in the system that have led us here, such as an alarming weakness of national economic, social and health systems?

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). Photo: UN

We must be careful that rising geopolitical tension is not exploited by some national political elites as an excuse for imposing inward-looking policies and strategies. This may bear fruit on the short-

term but will be counterproductive longer-term. A shift to nationalism would disrupt global supply chains of goods and services, doing harm to economies of scale and the provision of aid which will worsen health security. World leaders must step back from knee-jerk reactions to retrench and instead should come together in order to pursue modalities of international cooperation.

Clear communication channels only work if the message is simple and the recipients are educated on the subject. While the IOAC’s recommendations call for “more robust use of WHO collaborating centres around the world, expert networks, such as technical advisory bodies, and public health institutes”, we believe that they should be more ambitious and aim to strengthen the understanding of health systems and pandemics within schools, universities and the public at large. As for the international organizations such as the UN and WHO it must be clear: reforming them and updating them to the requirements of the globalized digital era necessitates ‘communicative multilateralism’ and the launching of ‘Verified’ by the UNSG António Guterres on 21st May, to create a cadre of “digital first responders” to fight misinformation, may be a positive step to adjust.

About the authors: 

Elizabeth Deheza is the Chief Executive of a strategic corporate intelligence company. Previously, Elizabeth worked for corporates, governments, investors and research institutes with senior roles spanning business development, research, intelligence and risk analysis. Elizabeth studied at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, Bocconi University and San Francisco State University and is fluent in English, Spanish, Italian and German.

Srgjan Kerim, President of the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly, is a seasoned diplomat, scholar and businessman with more than 30 years of international political experience as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia. Mr. Kerim began his academic career as a professor of international economics at the University of Belgrade. In addition, he was a visiting professor at the University of Hamburg (Germany) and at New York University. Mr. Kerim is also a recipient of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Award and has been decorated with honours by nations such as Italy, Germany, Austria, the U.S. and others.

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