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The COVID-19 is the infectious disease caused by the recently discovered corona-virus, which was unknown before its recent outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11th March 2020 as the coronavirus, which came into knowledge as recently as December, had rapidly claimed more than 121,000 people as its host from Asia to the Middle East, Europe, and the United States by then.
The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asserted that the number of cases outside China had grown thirteen-folds and the number of affected countries had tripled in the last couple of weeks before the declaration. Tedros said that while many countries could succeed in suppressing the spread of the virus within their territories, some failed to act fast enough or effectively enough to contain the spread. A pandemic, according to the World Health Organization, is defined as the “worldwide spread” of a new disease.
Significance of this development:
An epidemic refers to the alarming rise in the spread of a disease within a specific community. By contrast, the WHO defines a pandemic as a global spread of a new disease; it refers to the spread of a disease, rather than the severity of the illness it causes. During prior press briefs, the Organization maintained that the COVID-19 had “pandemic potential”, called it a “public health emergency of international concern”, but stopped short of actually declaring it a pandemic.
“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” said Dr. Tedros on March 11.
However, he said that such a declaration did not change what was being done and what has to be done, either by the WHO or by the different countries. The rapidly multiplying number of cases in China were concerning but did not suggest a pandemic. But when the total number of cases beyond China increased, and spread to all continents, except Antarctica, it helped to inform the WHO’s pandemic declaration. Such declarations signal that continued spread is likely, and that countries should prepare for the possibility of widespread community transmission. It also updates travel policy and prompts countries to prepare and plan for the quarantines and possible disruptions to public events, if necessary. It can also allow a head-start for the development of therapeutics and vaccines.
Criteria for declaration of a pandemic by the WHO:
A pandemic declaration is fairly unusual and was last made during the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak. If the situation is not too serious to be concerned about, such a declaration is deemed as a cause of unnecessary panic and precautions. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a corona-virus related to COVID-19, for example, infected about 8,000 people across 26 countries of the world in 2003 but did not reach the pandemic status.
The WHO officials appeared to be indicating that the declaration was fueled by the slow and inadequate responses by some countries as the virus continues to expand its reach. Tedros said that the organization has rung the alarm bell loud and clear and that it cannot repeat it enough times that the course of the pandemic could still be changed for good. Michael Ryan, WHO Director for Health emergencies said that “there is no mathematical formula, no algorithm for making a pandemic declaration.” He said the decision came only after serious internal and external consultation because the implication of the word is quite huge.
Role of the WHO in international arena:
The World Health Organization (WHO) was founded in 1948 with an ambitious objective- ‘the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health’. Its constitution defines 22 wide-ranging functions, of which the first was ‘to act as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work’.
The constitution of WHO is notable for the scope and breadth of the agenda it lays out for the organization. Health is described as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ and the ‘enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and social measures’. In its first two decades WHO was probably best known for the application of technical and medical expertise to infectious disease control- such as its eradication programs for malaria and smallpox.
In the 1970s WHO began to reflect fundamental changes in the international economic and political environment, which culminated in demands for the organization to provide more technical assistance to developing countries. The promotion of primary health care as a means by which health care should be delivered to greater effect but as part of a more fundamental economic and social restructuring has been at the focus of the Organization. The WHO wanted to promulgate the idea that health depends on much more than the delivery of health services.
The 21st Century global health layout requires an action plan which could be made effective globally when globalization of trade, travel, information, human rights, ideas, and diseases is rising to new heights by the day. The new global health era is highly multi-faceted and requires higher coordination of effort, priorities, and investments. “The World Health Organization plays an essential role in the global governance of health and disease; due to its core global functions of establishing, monitoring and enforcing international norms and standards, and coordinating multiple actors towards common health goals,” writes Jennifer Ruger, Associate Professor at Yale University. Global health governance requires the World Health Organization to lead as the common spokesperson on behalf of the member nations and effective implementation of the organization’s core global functions to ensure better effectiveness of all health factors.
Progress made under the guidance of the WHO:
In the past, strong leadership of the World Health Organization has helped shape several captious global health pathways including the awareness regarding the importance of health in trade debates, human rights context, partnerships, treaties, etc. Working with 194 member states across six regions, and from more than 150 offices, the WHO staff are united in a shared commitment to achieving better health for everyone, everywhere.
Over the past years, the WHO has gone through various permutations in prioritizing different aspects of different categories, and its effectiveness in doing so has been the subject of analysis and criticism. Prospects of health improvement are enhanced by the transfer of medical and public health knowledge and technology from one part of the globe to another and all countries benefit from international norms and standards and sustained global advocacy for health.
The WHO has successfully ruled out the primary challenge of globalization that relates to global inequalities and externalities in terms of health and health facilities. The organization has improved the distribution of health facilities and has succeeded in focusing the attention of the world on the importance of individual health in the rise of a nation.
Dr. Tedros said that the situation is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector, therefore every individual must be involved in the fight. The Organization has been criticized for not making the appropriate declaration earlier, however, Mike Ryan, head of the agency’s health emergencies program, admitted in a press conference that the agency feared that countries may interpret a pandemic declaration as a sign that efforts to contain the virus have failed and they no longer need to try. He added that he was worried, not about the word but, about the world’s reaction to it- whether it will be used to call action, for a fight or an excuse to give up. On one hand, while the declaration has been made to awaken the countries who refused to act even after loud warnings, there is a belief annexed to such declarations that the battle has already been lost.
The COVID-19 has infected 196,106 people and has claimed almost 7,869 lives worldwide, but the WHO is continuously repeating that even in absence of sufficient medicines and vaccines, quarantines and precautions could successfully help prevent the spread of the disease and also cure the victims before they succumb to the infection. The organization hopes that the declaration of the pandemic would improve the standard of actions taken to combat the disease and end the widespread trouble soon.
Author: Padmaja Dubey from Faculty of Law, University of Allahabad.
Editor: Tamanna Gupta from RGNUL, Patiala