Global crises require global solutions

10.03.2021 von Matthias Münch in Science, Context
The World Health Organisation (WHO) was originally founded to assess global health risks. However, during the Corona pandemic, the WHO’s influence has declined significantly and nation states have taken over emergency management. Dr Jonathan Everts, a professor of human geography, puts this fact into perspective.
The WHO Headquarter in Geneva
The WHO Headquarter in Geneva (Foto: WHO/P. Virot)

Infectious diseases are impervious to borders and can only be sustainably and permanently suppressed using a global approach. This realisation led to the founding of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1948. Its responsibilities were to include collecting data, preparing recommendations and, if necessary, dispatching experts and doctors to affected areas in the event of an international epidemic. However, national health authorities and policy makers have taken the lead role in addressing the current threat from Corona, sidelining the WHO as an international centre of competence and coordination.

This is a disturbing development that is also problematic from the standpoint of international law. In 2005, the WHO adopted its revised International Health Regulations (IHR), which were ratified by all member states. In addition to an immediate exchange of data, these regulations also stipulate, for example, the expansion of national health care systems in preparation for a pandemic. They also state that, in the event of a pandemic, national measures must be internationally coordinated in line with human rights conventions and evidence-based science. In addition, they stipulate that unnecessary disruption to international transport and trade must be avoided.

The timing of the new IHR was no coincidence. A few years earlier, two epidemics began spreading out from Southeast Asia, both of which were probably transmitted from wild animals to humans: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002, which was caused by a virus belonging to the Corona family, and H5N1 avian influenza in 2004. Nations began implementing unilateral measures to combat these epidemics. For example, Canada, the adopted home of many Chinese, stopped air traffic with China during the SARS pandemic. However, the adoption of the IHR did not result in a reduction in such unilateral measures. During the swine flu epidemic in 2009, the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic very early on, for which it was later strongly criticised. Numerous international supply chains were cut; China, for example, completely stopped importing pork from the USA.

These mistakes were not going to happen again in 2020. After the Corona outbreak, the WHO repeatedly warned against panic and hysteria and against destroying global trade relations, which are fundamental to food security and medical care. It attempted to emphasise that it was important not to lose sight of the big killers of the infectious diseases - like malaria, which mainly kills children in countries in the Global South. Notwithstanding, the nation states have taken over the reins and measures to contain the Corona pandemic are predominantly being taken on a national level. Not only are recommendations and findings by the WHO repeatedly being ignored, such as objections to border closures, mandatory masking, or studies on the effectiveness of lockdowns, the states, for their part, are exerting strong pressure on the WHO, which has changed its recommendations several times as a result. 

This trend is not least the product of a paradigm shift in health policy over recent decades: from expensive but effective prevention and treatment, to the cheaper “preparedness” and emergency management. As a result, hospitals are being closed for economic reasons, while spending on disaster management is on the rise. This is accompanied by alarmism, which makes it difficult to deal objectively with the threat of a disease. Dashboards - interactive, graphical overviews displaying, for example, rates of infection, deaths or spread patterns - play a problematic role here.

Dashboards were originally used by military crisis teams and were intended to give experts a quick overview. Their suitability for the wider public is questionable as they suggest simplified explanations for very complex phenomena. Varying regional mortality rates, for example, cannot be explained by national health and prevention measures alone. This requires a differentiated understanding of regional and demographic features, such as where, and in which social groups the virus is spreading particularly fast - at a very local level, for example, in care homes or the workplace.

Staying in disaster mode can obscure the fact that unilateral danger prevention also has undesired consequences, for example that it reinforces or creates new social inequalities – nationally as well as internationally. Millions of people around the world are dependent on the supply of food or medicines from industrialised countries. Millions live from tourism and are losing their livelihoods, especially in the poorer nations of the world. This inequality is exacerbated by national go-it-alone approaches to ordering and allocating vaccines. According to a report in the British Medical Journal, high-income countries reserved more than 50 per cent of the available vaccines by the end of 2020, although this will supply less than 14 per cent of the world’s population. The vaccination programme COVAX, which is backed by the WHO, is trying to make up for this, but will not be able to achieve the target of two billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021 for poorer countries.

In a few years, there will be a better understanding of how to interpret the many interdependencies currently emerging between the virus, society and politics. However, one thing is already clear: Global crises must be solved on a global level, even if this requires a very local approach adapted to the individual case.

Jonathan Everts
Jonathan Everts (Foto: Markus Scholz)

Dr Jonathan Everts has been a professor of anthropogeography at the Institute of Geosciences and Geography at MLU since 2018. The discipline looks at the interrelationship between humans and their environment, be it through consumption, combating disease, or in transport and urban planning. In his post-doctoral thesis, Everts examined how society handled the swine flu pandemic.

Professor Jonathan Everts
Institute of Geosciences and Geography
Telephone +49 345 55-26015





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