The following article is based on reporting, including background interviews with UN officials and diplomats, out of Geneva, New York and other locations.

These past few months of COVID-19 have proven both brutal and sobering. But the lessons are clear. The threat of a global pandemic has been with us for at least a decade, and yet we failed to respond. As scientist-explorer Paul Mayewski and international lawyer Charles Norchi point out in their lead article, we are facing twin crises, COVID-19 and climate change. Even with the petering out of this deadly virus, or the discovery of an effective vaccine, our survival now depends on a complete overhaul of our social and economic policies. We owe this to the younger generations, who must now assume the responsibility for dealing with – and hopefully fixing – the failed and often selfish approaches that many of the rich and powerful have imposed on our planet.

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Not only has the Age of Pandemics just begun, but global warming and other corrosive climatic factors are rapidly leading us to the brink. We may be able to turn things around, but only just. Much will depend on what we do over the next 10 to 15 years. Beyond that, it may be too late. As Swiss journalist Karin Wenger notes in her piece on the sinking of Bangkok and other megacities in southeast Asia, huge portions of these urban conglomerations with tens of millions of people can expect to be under water by 2050.   

What lessons from coronavirus?

The tragedy behind the coronavirus is that most countries – and some key institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta – dropped the ball. Italy and then Spain found themselves completely on their own, while the European Union failed to respond. (See our Coronavirus Stories both in this edition and online) Rather than support each other in their battle against a common enemy, almost every member state was more concerned for itself. The EU eventually caught up, but had initially failed to define its purpose through decisive action, inspired leadership and global collaboration.

As COVID-19 has demonstrated, self-centred, single-minded populism doesn’t help. The most staggering lack of leadership, of course, lies with those in charge of China, the United States, Britain and Brazil. The Communist Party of China (CPP), which has been busy interning over a million Muslims in concentration camps and cracking down on dissent in Hong Kong, sought to stifle the truth behind the Wuhan virus. Only when it was too late to prevent contamination beyond its borders did it finally act by informing the international community that, whoops…

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson also acted too late – and with ignorance. He embraced an unproven ‘herd immunity’ approach that lead his nation to a disastrous explosion of cases and deaths. The fact that Johnson found himself infected by the coronavirus sobered him up like a contrite schoolboy. Not only was he obliged to recognize the importance of a dedicated National Health Service (an institution he had previously scathingly criticized) with its heroic mix of British and foreign (yes, foreign) doctors and nurses on the frontline, but also that no government has the right to simply write off its more vulnerable citizens. As soon emerged, the coronavirus was infecting – and killing – victims from all age groups, including children. Furthermore, Johnson’s argument of national greatness outside the EU suddenly sounded incredibly out of touch.

Negating science in favour of politics

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is another one of those politicians who has preferred to negate science at the cost of his own people, including the indigenous tribes of the Amazon who risk decimation by the spread of this virus from the outside. At this time of writing, Brazil had officially suffered over a quarter of a million infections with some 16,000 dead making it the fourth worst situation in the world after the US, UK and Russia. And yet, Bolsonaro has remained in denial maintaining that COVID-19 is little different from the ordinary flu and that social distancing and other precautions are not required.

Well in the forefront with his lack of responsibility and compassion lies U.S. President Donald Trump, another science denier who indulges in dangerous quackery. His abuse of the free press and the American Constitution coupled with his inability to lead – or to support a less egotistical and more global approach for dealing with COVID-19 – has arguably contributed to the death of nearly 100,000 human beings in the United States. Furthermore, as some economists are predicting, his ignorance may already have forfeited the role of the United States as a world power of example.

There is a reason why The Lancet, one the world’s leading medical journals, condemned Trump for chipping away at the CDC’s capacity to combat infectious diseases. This included the withdrawal of the CDC’s collaborative research team from China in the summer of 2019 leaving a highly dangerous intelligence vacuum. The Lancet further notes that the White House has subverted the Atlanta-based institution even more over the past months, including its proposed virus guidelines. “These actions have undermined the CDC’s leadership and its work during the COVID-19 pandemic,” declared the 16 May 2020 editorial. It also criticized Trump for withholding funding from WHO before finally proposing that Americans vote for a new president “who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), holds a virtual briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic in Geneva. (Photo: UN)

Time to end political manipulation of WHO – and the UN

In times like this, there has to be responsible, global leadership. One vehicle for this should be the United Nations, including WHO. There is much to criticise within the UN, but much of this is due to the manner with which this successor to the League of Nations was set up after World War II. It can only be as good as the member states allow. Sadly, far too many governments see the UN as their playing field for political manipulation rather than serving in the public interest. Banal as it may seem, it’s time to give the UN back to the people it claims to represent, not the regimes that seek to run it.

The reality is that WHO still stands out as the only international organization capable of coordinating proper global responses to health emergencies. It has proven this with the eradication of smallpox in 1980 or its progress in countering malaria. The same goes for other parts of the UN. Even if not always successful, it plays a critical role for dealing with issues such as climate change, wars and humanitarian crises such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti…As is often maintained, if the UN did not exist, we’d have to reinvent it. (See Tom Weiss article on multilateralism and the UN)

Some of the recent criticism of WHO regarding its fumbling of the Wuhan virus may prove fully justified once an independent and fully transparent outside investigation, including journalists from The Lancet and other informed press, has been undertaken. This is vital if such an inquiry is to credibly serve in the public interest. As stressed by the EU, Australia and others, this needs to happen now.

Critical, too, is that such an investigation examine CCP efforts at political bullying resulting in a cowing of WHO, such as the alleged sidelining of Taiwan’s requests for information about the virus at the end of December 2019 or the refusal of a senior WHO official to respond to a reporter’s question about the island state. But it must also explore the failed roles of governments, including the United States. While the Trump administration has made WHO’s supposed connivance with China a key issue, it has done exactly the same by seeking to politically ostracize it by withholding funds.

UN General Assembly in New York. This is the institution that can vote in much-needed change, but will probably still seek to retain their political rather than people’s interests. (Photo: UN)

The UN should be “for the people, and by the people”

In 2006, Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet was asked by Jens Stoltenberg, head of NATO but then Prime Minister of Norway, to take part as outside writer in a “high level” UN reform process. There have been many UN reform initiatives, yet probably one of the biggest drawbacks was that they always tend to be government or UN “blue ribbon” rather than including civil society. And this despite Stoltenberg’s assertion at the time that the proposed reform, which was passed by the General Assembly in autumn 2006, should lead to a UN “for the people, and by the people”.

A number of positive proposals did emerge from the 2006 process co-chaired by Norway, Pakistan and Mozambique. These included the “One UN” approach designed to make all UN agencies fall in line with each other in order to avoid costly and often pointless replication of projects and budgets. Much has been since achieved, but jealousies and turf wars still abound. And there remains a lot of wastage. (See article by Arthur Wood on the widening financial gap in funding for the Sustainable Development Goals)

One of the most important suggestions, however, was that all UN appointments should be non-political and based instead on a more corporate approach of meritocracy. In other words, find the best person possible for the job regardless of political affiliation or national quotas. After all, those working for the UN should no longer be in hock with their governments. Their commitment should be to the common good of the planet and its inhabitants.

Yet within days, it was back to business as usual with the pragmatic concept of meritocracy tossed back into the drawer. Governments continued to lobby – if not threaten – to have their own choices placed in positions of influence. And it did not matter whether they were competent or not. The Chinese, Japanese, Danes, Germans, Swedes, French, Canadians, Koreans, Saudis… (the list goes on, but usually the ones with money and influence) all push for their candidates in senior positions. Typically, the heads of UNICEF and the World Food Programme are regarded as American positions; while OCHA belongs to the British and the head of the UN office in Geneva is a Soviet (now Russian). China, too, holds a number of key director roles – all of them CCP members.

Chengdu, China (Feb.2020): Wearing masks against COVID-19, people line up for temperature checks before entering Chunxi Road, the downtown mall area in Chengdu, China. (Photo: Complimentary Gettyimages)

Everyone knows what’s going on, but the UN is too afraid to counter

Officially, the UN has refused comment on such practices. However, a number of senior UN officials have privately acknowledged that governments – often without subtlety – position their choices wherever they can in order to further their influence within the UN system. Without embracing the Trumpean agenda, one senior UN official in New York noted that China is doing “everything possible” to impose its views on the WHO and UN. “Everyone knows that this is going on, and yet the UN is too afraid to counter such pressure,” the official said.

Sometimes, such political choices are excellent; yet often they are little more than ‘fillers’ or part of administrative ‘dumping’ with ineffective appointees who do not really understand the job. Or they lack vision and simply use their new positions to enhance their own careers with blatant disregard of what is best for the UN. One UN chief misused travel funds in a bid to promote himself as a presidential candidate in his home country.

As one senior UN official in Geneva put it: “You cannot believe the mediocrity that the member states often promote in order to get their own man – or woman – into an influential slot. It’s disgraceful and does nothing good for the UN.” Another UN manager noted: “It’s time to focus on real professionals…if not, the UN will simply dissolve into mediocrity.” The real tragedy is that many job applications draw excellent potential candidates with proven track records both from within and outside the UN. And yet, non-transparent and donor-dominated interview boards will not accept them because of political preferences.

Africa can expect to suffer massively from Covid-19 in the months ahead, but also from the growing and longer-term impact of climate change. (Photo: ICRC)

This is part of the criticism levelled against Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, WHO’s current head and the face of COVID-19 worldwide. One of several shortlisted candidates, which included the UK’s David Nabarro who is now WHO’s special envoy for the pandemic, Tedros was appointed in May, 2017. As pointed out by some, including sources within WHO, this was largely the result of backroom politicking, including by the Addis Abeba-based African Union. The Chinese, who have invested massively in Africa (and Ethiopia), also lobbied strongly for Tedros. So he owes major political payback. Shortly after assuming office, for example, Tedros named former Zimbawean dictator Robert Mugabe – another Chinese favourite – as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador. Tedros was quickly forced to withdraw the corrupt ex-politician following protests by much of the western world.

So in the Age of Pandemics, why not push for less politicization and genuine effectiveness within the UN in the interests of “the people” rather than regimes? At the 73rd annual World Health Assembly (held virtually in Geneva 18-19 May, 2022), Taiwan, which has one of the planet’s best records for dealing with COVID-19, was not allowed to attend, primarily because of extreme pressure by Beijing and its increasingly criticized “One China” policy.

According to the rules, Tedros could have included Taiwan citing public interest. And not just because it has a population of over 23 million (somewhat less than Australia) with crucial lessons to share with the rest of the world. It will indeed be ironic if Trump’s grandstanding removes some of the UN’s weakest leaders while his America First approach opens the way for more idealistic nations to install a different, visionary, practical and inspirational kind of UN governance.

This piece was editorially compiled out of Geneva, New York and other locations.

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