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Remove populism from international health

In mid-2017, when doing some background research on press freedom, I found a report about how a reporter was kicked out from a meeting of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The report intrigued me because I wasn’t expecting to find problems with such an august international body.

The WHO describes itself as the directing and coordinating authority on international health within the United Nations’ system. Its history goes back to 1945, when the UN itself was being formed. At that time, it was also decided that there is a need for a global health body. That gave birth to the WHO, which was then formally constituted in 1948.

Today, 194 countries are members of the WHO. It employs more than 7,000 people from more than 150 countries, and the headquarters is in Geneva. The organisation also has its Global Service Centre here, in Cyberjaya, from which they provide administrative support to WHO offices worldwide.

Still curious about the why this international body forcibly kicked out the journalist, I read a bit more about the incident. It happened in New Delhi in 2016, at a WHO meeting to discuss tobacco control. The reporter was Drew Johnson from the US, who entered the conference in protest of the WHO’s ban on reporters from covering that meeting.

If you search for the video online, you will see how Johnson was forcibly removed despite his protest. Writing about his experience, Johnson quoted a source who told him that “WHO officials like the appearance of unanimous votes and undivided support and they don’t want media to see when there are dissenting voices or opposing votes”.

In short, they wanted to go ahead with their politics without the pressure of transparency.

The WHO is once again holding their annual executive board meeting in Geneva next week. High on their agenda is international rules on intellectual property (IP) rights. There are some members states who want to weaken the protection of IP rights globally so that patented medicines can be copied more easily.

There are also suggestions that the WHO should recommend to its member states to implement proposals from the controversial UN High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines. The work of this Panel is something that not many Malaysians have discussed. Those who, like us, are working on healthcare issues may be watching the developments carefully but among the public, awareness is not very high.

The Panel’s report is quite a lengthy and complex one, but let me say here that I think it is a rather one-sided document. The Panel was formed by the UN Secretary General, yet even he has not endorsed their report up to now.

Among others, the Panel fails to appreciate how IP protection is important to encourage innovation in medical research. They too want to weaken IP protection in the pharmaceutical industry.

When the report was published, even the Obama administration protested, saying that the report is “fundamentally flawed” and that the recommendations “could severely undermine the innovation critical for the development of medicines and health technologies.”

It is unbelievable that an international body like the WHO, in addition to their refusal to respect freedom of the press, is also adamant to join the chorus of rising populism shrouding the world today. Weakening IP rights may generate immediate popularity for politicians and policy-makers. But it is the wrong thing to do because in the long term it will destroy the motivation for our researchers to innovate, since their discoveries can be easily copied by anyone.

In reality, IP has little to do with access to medicines. The real barriers to good healthcare are more related to weaknesses in health infrastructure and underfunding. But this is not what the WHO is looking into because they have their eyes on the wrong target.

This mistaken priority is symptomatic of the ongoing politicisation and dysfunctionality of the WHO as a whole. It gets involved in unnecessary issues quickly, but fails to move fast enough in problems that do require their intervention.

For example, the WHO is failing miserably in handling transnational infectious diseases. In 2015, West Africa was hit by an Ebola crisis that killed more than 11,000 people. And Yemen has been facing a cholera crisis since 2016, where close to a million people are affected. In both cases, the WHO has not been effective.

Perhaps the most telling action to show how the WHO has confused their priorities was when they announced former Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as their goodwill ambassador in Africa. The appointment had to be embarrassingly scrapped when the WHO received a deluge of criticisms.

As the WHO meets in Geneva, they should reconsider their priorities. To justify the taxpayer money they receive, they should focus on the real issues, and less distracted by populist politics.


First published for Thinking Liberally, The Star, 16 January 2018

2018-01-29T01:35:10+08:00 16th January 2018|Opinion|Comments Off on Remove populism from international health