In this episode of COVIDcast, Natasha Kassam, Lowy Institute Research Fellow, sat down with Joel Negin to discuss the current controversy surrounding the World Health Organization and its handling of the pandemic. Negin is Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney.

“We can lament the fact that the WHO is a political animal but it’s been a political animal from its founding and for most of its history it has been … aligned with Western interests, including Australia’s.”

In the light of the decision by President Donald Trump to freeze funding of the WHO, and calls from some Australian politicians for a review into the organisation, Natasha and Joel discussed the fundamental purpose of the WHO.

Negin noted the WHO’s main role was to help low and middle-income countries to manage a range of health issues. He said that in the context of Covid-19, freezing funding would mean, “the WHO will be less able to ensure testing, to support governments with their own isolation and quarantining, to support health workers in low and middle-income countries in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19”. And he commented, “if the countries in our region have strong health systems, and are able to respond to this outbreak, that will benefit Australia”.

Kassam noted the politicised nature of the organisation and questioned whether China held undue influence. Negin said, “We can lament the fact that the WHO is a political animal but it’s been a political animal from its founding and for most of its history it has been … aligned with Western interests, including Australia’s.” He observed that the United States and Australia have steadily reduced funding of, and engagement with, the organisation over the past decade and that China has filled a power vacuum. He also argued that the WHO had avoided criticising China in the hope of ensuring the country co-operated fully in reporting the outbreak, but this had placed the organisation in an impossible position. Poor decisions such as the exclusion of Taiwan as an observer from the WHO reveal the geopolitical struggles taking place within the body’s membership.

Negin concluded by noting, “every country in the world, every entity in the world, every jurisdiction … has to be involved in the World Health Assembly, in the WHO” and that despite its imperfections, “if we did abolish the WHO we’d need to recreate something that looked remarkably similar”.

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of COVID-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.