Has populism infected world health?

  • Thinking Liberally
  • Tuesday, 16 Jan 2018

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 Organization (WHO).

The report intrigued me because I wasn’t expecting such an august international body to take such action.

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 in Cyberjaya, which provides administrative support to WHO offices worldwide.

Still curious about why this international body ejected 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 organisation barred reporters from covering the event.

Drew Johnson, a reporter from the US, entered the conference hall in protest of that decision.

If you search online, you will see videos showing how Johnson was forcibly removed.

Writing about his experience, he 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”.

The WHO is once again holding its annual executive board meeting in Geneva next week.

High on the agenda are international rules on intellectual property (IP) rights. There are some member 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 that member states 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.

The panel fails to appreciate how IP protection is important to encourage innovation in medical research. It too wants to weaken IP protection in the pharmaceutical industry.

When the report was published, even the Obama administration protested, saying 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 its refusal to respect freedom of the press, is also adamant about joining 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 the WHO has its eyes fixed 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 does not move fast enough in problems that do require its 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 indication of the confused priorities was when the WHO announced former Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as its 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, it should reconsider its priorities. To justify the taxpayer money it receives, it should focus on the real issues, and be less distracted by populist politics.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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