Civil Society, Health

Health threats and the WHO

Jun 5 2020

By Sir Richard Jolly*

Covid-19 hit the world at the start of 2020, beginning in Wuhan, China, before spreading to other countries of Asia, and then moving to Italy and most of Europe, and ultimately everywhere. The immediate and longer-term consequences for the GPE were evident in falling stock markets, rising unemployment, and diminished GDPs.

The World Health Organization (WHO), a UN specialized agency, was active in the first days and declared a global pandemic in March 2020. However, action was mostly national; international coordination was absent, with too little support for poorer countries with weak health systems. WHO’s regular budget had for some years been barely 20 percent of its requests for core support. For over a decade, several wealthy countries turned away from international action and reduced obligatory financial support in favor of earmarked funding that matched their own national priorities.

The economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have been as large as any post-war economic disruption. At the time of writing, the total cost is estimated as a short-term loss of some 10-20 percent of GDP in many countries, with medium- and longer-term losses totalling trillions of dollars.([i])

 The virus led NGOs to offer help. For example, the International Chamber of Commerce signed an agreement with the WHO ensuring the latest and most accurate information was available for 45,000 businesses worldwide; its members helped to prevent transmission and worked closely with WHO field offices. The World Economic Forum declared a COVID-19 Action Platform with the support of some 200 global corporate leaders, who pledged medical supplies, protective equipment, and vaccine research. Bill Gates had warned about preventive action against new viruses; and the Gates Foundation’s international funding for health programs rivals the WHO. 

The negligible international preparation before and response to this disaster can be compared to the 2 percent or more of GNP that most industrial countries spend each year on their national armies, navies, and air forces and reserve supplies. In addition, there are ongoing coordinated international military systems, comprising regular meetings of policy makers, sharing of information, equipment and technological development and frequent international exercises. The best funded, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is underpinned by formal agreements, committing each country to respond if another is attacked.

While military preparedness is an understandable national priority, why is there nothing comparable for the insecurity from global health or other threats? The potential benefits would be considerable, especially preventing poorer countries with weak health systems from becoming petri-dishes for communicable diseases. In identifying costs and benefits, there are success stories on which to build. Smallpox was eradicated in eleven years between 1966 and 1977, in a WHO-led effort. Until then, smallpox killed two million people annually. The total cost of eradication was $300 million, of which the WHO component was $100 million—at the time the cost of a single fighter bomber.


(i) UNCTAD’s initial estimates in March 2020 were a world loss of $1-2 billion, but this early figure predated other pullbacks and does not reflect long-run consequences. It is likely a considerable underestimate.  (downloaded 5/4/2020)


Article sent to Other News by the author on June 4, 2020


*Sir Arthur Richard Jolly, an eminent development economist, is Honorary Professor and former Director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. From 1982-2000, Sir Richard Jolly was Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, serving first as Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and later as Coordinator of UNDP’s Human Development Report. He was also co-director of the UN Intellectual History Project.

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