Photo credit: UN Geneva

The Editors: The Pandemic Treaty is unnecessary, and wrong

There has been much talk in recent weeks about the World Health Organisations’ putative “pandemic treaty”. Much of that talk has been speculative. The truth is that we do not know what any such treaty will contain. We do not know whether it would, for example, involve a transfer of sovereignty from nation states to the World Health Organisation, though such a prospect seems vanishingly remote at this stage. Indeed, were such a transfer of sovereignty involved, a referendum would be legally required in Ireland.

What we do know, though, is that it has already stirred up substantial opposition. Some of that opposition is perhaps based more on people’s worst fears than on the facts of what the proposed treaty contains. Yet here at Gript, there is perhaps no subject about which we receive more comments and queries.

Despite this, the treaty, and the negotiations ongoing about its drafting, have received little to no mainstream coverage. This adds to the sense that some have that this document is being produced in secret, and for reasons that are unclear.

What we can say with some certainty though, is this: There is no evidence that such a treaty is needed. And there is plenty of evidence that the World Health Organisation should not be trusted to lead a global public health response.

The recent pandemic should be remembered, amongst other things, as a nadir in the record of the WHO. From the very beginning of the pandemic, the WHO behaved less as a global organisation committed to the open transmission of public health information, and more as a Chinese State information service. These concerns were validated in an investigation by the Times of London just under a year ago. That newspaper found, amongst other things:

A Sunday Times investigation raises serious concerns that the independence and leadership of the WHO were severely compromised by the time the first cases of a mysterious new coronavirus appeared in Wuhan in 2019 — with profound consequences for the course of the Covid-19 pandemic and the world.

Our investigation revealed:

  • China secured WHO votes to install its chosen candidates as director-general.

  • The WHO leadership prioritised China’s economic interests over halting the spread of the virus when Covid-19 first emerged.

  • China exerted ultimate control over the WHO investigation into the origins of Covid-19, appointing its chosen experts and negotiating a backroom deal to water down the mandate.

Those are the findings of the Sunday Times, and they are backed up by evidence.

At a time when a global public health response was needed, the WHO first played down the danger of the pandemic, going along with Chinese assertions that the virus could not be transmitted from person to person. It repeatedly issued contradictory public health advice on issues like international travel, facemasks, lockdowns, and other measures. It was perceived as being so close to China by western intelligence agencies that the United States actually threatened to defund it during the height of the pandemic.

Reform of the WHO is badly needed, but will not come, because, like other global organisations, change is subject to the approval of China, which has no reason to change an organisation that has served it well.

In the light of all of this, it is unsurprising that so many people would regard the prospect of any treaty with the WHO which might increase its influence as troubling.

One thing the pandemic showed quite clearly is that there were, in fact, multiple approaches to dealing with the virus. Sweden, on one extreme, and to a lesser extent the United States, adopted a liberal, restriction-light approach. New Zealand and Australia, and China, to various extremes, chose another, restriction-heavy approach. Many European countries, like Ireland, landed somewhere in the middle. People will be debating for years the question of who got it right.

It seems extremely premature, then, for any treaty or global agreement on how to manage future pandemics – not least while, as we speak, China has major cities locked down tight because of the fact that for them, Covid is not over.

The Irish Government, of course, seems certain to go with the flow. If everybody else is signing up to some global pandemic treaty, then there is no way that Merrion Street will want to be left out of the party. The most that we can realistically hope for is that the “treaty” is so vague and non-binding as to be – like many international instruments – little more than a statement of best practice.

If it is anything more than that, Ireland should not sign it, and nor should anybody else. Anybody who claims the ability to point to the Covid Pandemic and tell you what, exactly, best practice is, at this stage, is not being honest. And the World Health Organisation, after Covid, deserves no benefit of the doubt.

This is all unnecessary, and divisive.

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