You may never have heard of the World Health Assembly, an annual meeting of health ministers from around the world that opens on Monday, but your safety and that of future generations may well depend on what is happening at this previously obscure international gathering.
In last year’s assembly, the Chinese government pulled off a coup, of sorts. Although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed a difficult investigation on how the pandemic started, the Australian proposal was watered down so much that China, which had vehemently opposed the Australian project, defended the resolution which was ultimately passed. This deeply imperfect document, and the implementation conditions later negotiated between the World Health Organization and China, narrowed the scope of what could be examined. When the joint study team of independent international experts and their Chinese government counterparts authorized by this compromised process released its report two months ago, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom considered the report insufficient, in part because he failed to properly examine the hypothesis that the viral outbreak could have originated from an accidental laboratory incident.
This year’s assembly meets as the pandemic crisis rages on. Although conditions in the United States and a few other countries are improving, the WHO has estimated that more people are at risk of dying more COVID-19 worldwide in the coming year than those who died last year. It shouldn’t just push us to act for moral reasons. It should also force us to recognize that the virus variants that can grow in the most vulnerable places around the world have the very real possibility of putting us all at risk. There is only one global health and we are all part of it.
But in the context of rising tensions between the United States and China, realizing this aspiration is easier said than done. In this process, Monday’s meeting of health ministers will have the delicate task of balancing efforts to focus on the past, present and future.
Focus on the past, on how this pandemic started, is absolutely essential for prioritizing our response and for setting a global standard of behavior and accountability. Failure to fully investigate all of the original hypotheses – especially a possible laboratory incident – would allow China to sidestep serious liability. Our governments must now use the World Health Assembly as a critical opportunity to prevent this from happening. Everyone on earth is a stakeholder in understanding what went wrong as an essential first step towards addressing our greatest vulnerabilities.
Focusing on the present is also essential. Current estimates suggest that it may take more than two years for enough people to be vaccinated around the world to begin to end the pandemic. We have all witnessed the terrible devastation in places like Brazil and India, and there is good reason to believe that many other parts of the world, including the poor mega-cities of Africa and South Asia. South, could suffer the same fate. Then again, leaving these populations unprotected would essentially create a petri dish for the virus and put us all at risk. To avoid this, health ministers will need to redouble their efforts to boost vaccine production and distribution around the world, especially to meet the needs of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
But even if we establish a process to study how the pandemic started and how to end it as quickly as possible, we will all remain in unnecessary danger unless we build much stronger global systems to prevent pandemics and improve health. public in general.
A recently published report a WHO-mandated international panel, chaired by former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, though imperfect, provided a solid plan for next steps. It will be up to national governments, starting with the meeting of health ministers at the World Health Assembly, to build that safer future ahead of the next pathogenic epidemic – which may be imminent.
In an ideal world, health ministers would tackle all three of these challenges at once. But there is one problem: China.
While the Chinese government is needed as a collaborator to solve the problems of the present and the future, the price to pay for doing so may well be at the expense of honesty and accountability to the past. . Because China has levers of influence and control over many governments, there will likely be a tendency to let the past go and forget about the origins of the pandemic. Other countries, including the United States, have also lots of bookkeeping to do for the failures that allowed the pandemic to grow as much as it did.
But to write down the past would be a tragic and self-defeating mistake. If we don’t establish a model of accountability, how can we prevent other governments, including our own, from taking unnecessary risks in the future? A house built on fragile foundations will eventually collapse.
Now is the time for fearless honesty on the part of all of us, including our ministers of health here today. We must demand that our leaders muster the courage to face our most difficult challenges.
Jamie metzl is a technology futurist, member of the World Health Organization’s International Advisory Board on Human Genome Editing, and Founder and Chairman of OneShared.World, a global social movement focused on facilitating global collective action. He is the author of five books, including “Darwin’s hack: genetic engineering and the future of humanity“(2019). Previously, he served on the National Security Council and the State Department under the Clinton administration and at the United Nations. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on twitter @jamiemetzl.