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Event report: Covid-19, the WHO, and International Society

Posted on 20 July 2020

In June, Professor Sanjoy Bhattacharya, the Director of the Centre for Global Health Histories at the University of York, took part in a Harvard International and Global History Seminar. Professor of History Erez Manela, who co-chairs the seminars, moderated the panel, which also included: Heidi Tworek, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, Nitsan Chorev, the Harmon Family Professor of Sociology and International Studies at Brown University, and Thomas Zimmer, Assistant Professor at the University of Freiburg.

The panellists, who have all made significant contributions to the history of international and global health, gathered to discuss COVID-19 and its implications for the World Health Organisation.

The panellists began by discussing the difficulty WHO is facing working with nations that have tended to be inward-looking, despite the global nature of the crisis. This has had negative consequences, such as justifying the competition for personal protective equipment. However, it is also normal, the panellists said. Closing borders and placing threat outside a country is useful for national agendas. They also suggested that the concept of global solidarity can be easily idealised. In reality, the global response depends on the country level response, and there is a lack of alternatives to the national framework. This, they said, is something WHO needs to work on—creating transnational alternatives to disease responses.


The group also discussed Western scepticism regarding WHO—a significant change since Western countries played a leading role in creating the United Nations. This might be the result of the growth of alternative independent entities such as the Global Fund, the Gates Foundation, GAVI, and other public-private-partnerships. The situation today is similar to the early twentieth century when the United States remained removed from the League of Nations but provided much of its funding. National interests are always at play alongside utopian slogans of solidarity. WHO was established at a time when world leaders were increasingly fearful of the global spread of disease and recognised that self-protection relied on international cooperation. Historians have an opportunity to deeply explore the hard-nosed negotiations of all countries, even the less powerful ones, in the workings of WHO.


Another question the panellists addressed was whether WHO could serve as an arena to dispel conflict between competing nations. In the past, member states have stepped in to persuade antagonistic nations to join international health efforts. An example is the previous good work of Scandinavian countries to bring USSR and USA to the table. However, currently, such competition is depleting as the United States removes itself from international health efforts. WHO’s influence will depend on its power relative to other countries. 


To complete the conversation, each panellist offered their thoughts on what the pandemic will bring. Dr Tworek believes that while there will be a massive decrease in the movement of goods and people, the production of information will vastly increase across the world. Dr Chorev believes that the global economy will have a larger impact than the pandemic itself. Dr Zimmer hopes that Western countries will focus more on sustainable responses to health challenges rather than quick emergency reactions. Dr Bhattacharya said the success of WHO will depend on whether it respects the variety of needs of its regional offices and the states they represent.


The Centre for Global Health Histories at the University of York thanks the Harvard International and Global History Seminar for organising the event and creating an opportunity for an insightful and informative conversation.


A recording of this event is accessible here.


This event report is written by Alexandra Bradbury (MA, Medical History and Humanities), University of York