What is the World Health Assembly?
The World Health Assembly is the key decision-making body of the World Health Organization, attended by representatives of the United Nation’s 194 member states.
The two-day 2020 assembly will be held virtually – it usually happens in Geneva – because of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis around the world.
This year’s assembly, the 73rd WHA, will be dedicated almost entirely to strengthening global coordination against the Covid-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 4.7 million people and killed 315,000.
This will be a critical assembly: the annual meeting comes at a time when the WHO has attracted unprecedented global attention for its coordination and advisory role during the pandemic.
Influential states, most notably the US, have criticised the WHO for being slow to react, and alleged it has been biased towards China. The US has withheld funding from the WHO in response to its perceived Covid-19 failings.
What is the proposal for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, and which countries are behind it?
A key conference paper, already filed ahead of the assembly, and supported by 122 countries, including the members of the European Union and the African Group, the UK, Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, calls for a systemic review of the world’s response to Covid-19.
Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with member states, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation ... to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19.
The draft motion does not mention China or Wuhan (the city where the virus was first detected) by name. But it urges the global health community to:
... identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions.
And the paper argues the response to the pandemic must be global. The motion:
… calls for the universal, timely and equitable access to and fair distribution of all quality, safe, efficacious and affordable essential health technologies and products including their components and precursors required in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a global priority.
And China’s position?
Calls for an independent international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 have been viewed by Beijing as an attempt to blame it for the disease emerging and breaking out globally. When Australia first proposed a global inquiry last month, China said it was “seriously concerned about and firmly opposed to this”.
“Since the outbreak began, China has always acted in an open, transparent and responsible manner and taken a series of resolute, timely and forceful measures,” foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang then said.
Australia led the charge publicly with calls for an inquiry that has now gathered the support of 62 countries, but it has come at the expense of further strain in Australia-China relations. Beijing has proposed massive tariffs on Australian barley and blocked some Australia meat imports, moves condemned by Canberra as attempts at economic coercion.
But with growing international support for an inquiry, China’s language has softened considerably. The foreign ministry argued the European Union-drafted motion to be dealt with at the World Health Assembly should be viewed in a different light from Australia’s initial proposal.
“It’s not the same thing,” a foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said at a regular press briefing last week. “You should not view them together from a political angle.”
Will Taiwan be a key issue?
The presence of Taiwan at the meeting is likely to prove a divisive issue, and there is significant risk that valuable time – the meeting is strictly limited to two days – could be lost in the machinations of whether representatives of the Taipei government will be allowed in the meeting.
Taiwan’s administration was the first government in the world to deploy preventative measures to guard against the spread of Sars-Cov2 virus, and the island has been held up as global success story: it had only 440 cases and seven deaths, despite being just 180km from the Chinese mainland, where the pandemic began.
Diplomatic allies of Taiwan, including Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay, have formally requested to invite Taiwan to the meeting as an observer. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has also said publicly he wants Taiwan in the room.
Besides the input from Taiwan as a country that has successfully combated Covid-19, the US push for its inclusion is part of a broader struggle between Washington and Beijing for influence within the WHO.
Member states will vote on Taiwan’s admittance to the assembly. A unanimous affirmation is required, and it appears increasingly like China will block Taiwan’s admittance.
Since the election of the pro-independence president, Tsai Ing-wen, in 2016, China has routinely vetoed Taiwan’s inclusion into UN bodies. Taiwan participated in the WHA as an observer from 2009 to 2016, when the Beijing-friendly president, Ma Ying-jeou, was in office, but has not been invited since.
What are the other issues up for debate?
This will be an intensely political WHA – a meeting that often passes with little public commentary – because of the continuing Covid-19 crisis around the world, and the varying capabilities of government responses.
The role of the World Health Organisation itself, and its response to the pandemic, will also be under extreme scrutiny, following accusations from the US, Australia and Germany, among others, that it was slow to respond to the initial outbreak and has displayed a bias towards China.
The WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has weathered much of the criticism, in particular from the US president, Donald Trump, who said the organisation was “very China-centric” and had given the US a “faulty recommendation” about keeping its borders open.
The WHO has been criticised for its response to pandemics before.
In 2009, it declared the H1N1 flu outbreak as a pandemic, a decision later criticised by some governments that argued it triggered countries to take expensive measures against a disease that was ultimately milder than forecast.
The agency and its then director general, Margaret Chan, also faced sharp criticism for not reacting fast enough to the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa that began in December 2013.
The 2020 WHA will also address a global vaccine action plan, neglected tropical diseases, and polio eradication.