Shane Jones: World Health Organisation needs reform - not fattening

Covid-19 was a singular test of the World Health Organisation and every country’s preparedness. The initial response showed a lack of preparedness at WHO and in many countries, including New Zealand.

Unfortunately, MFAT’s multi-lateral Pharisees are currently reproducing failure by backing treaty negotiations in Geneva where a proposal is to give WHO binding legal powers over countries.

No doubt their ambitions are fuelled by the political belief they excelled at home. Meanwhile, no one in the Beehive can tell us how we are better prepared for the next pandemic.

To understand how foolish it is to hand more power to WHO, we need to remember what has just happened.

When the emergency was first called in early 2020, the agency was obsessed with hand-washing and consistently rejected the growing evidence it was an airborne aerosol spread disease.

Likewise, our Ministry of Health’s pandemic response plan was based on influenza.

In January 2020, China reacted with rage to the US closing its borders to Chinese airlines. Then, against WHO guidelines, nearly all countries, including China, closed borders as a sensible short-term measure.

Meanwhile, our director general of health Ashley Bloomfield and the minister nominally in charge, Chris Hipkins, did not seem to be listening when Pfizer said vaccine production supplies would be provided on a first-come first-served basis. Kiwis then discovered we were at the back of the queue and, sadly, this egregious lapse cost us dearly.

It meant our vaccination programme was at least six months late. That, combined with saliva testing never being delivered, meant we were not operationally ready for Delta or Omicron.

Through all this, the WHO was operationally lacking and politicised by large powers. While occasionally convening experts and publishing information and guidelines, it regularly admonished countries for not contributing enough vaccines to its COVEX scheme.

Finally embarrassed by its own poor response, the WHO called in a Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response review by Helen Clark and a co-chair, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former leader of Liberia.

They said the scale of the pandemic could have been prevented but for the myriad failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response.

Concerns that Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, was too weak in getting China to earlier declare the scale of the viral outbreak were dismissed. Former US President Donald Trump said the virus came from Wuhan. What was conspiracist then is consensus now.

So now, WHO’s convening body the World Health Assembly, comprising the nations of the world, is discussing a new global pandemic treaty. It is due to be wrapped up by May 2024. New Zealand diplomats have said they support a legally binding agreement.

Somehow, an unheralded cabal of Ministry of Health officials, MFAT and the PM’s office have been beavering away in Switzerland while Kiwis are in the dark at home.

It is a shame and again puts at risk public confidence, given suspicions about expanding the powers of public health officials and global bodies.

Article 19 of the WHO constitution grants authority to negotiate legally binding agreements. There is a precedent with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The kicker in this new treaty will be powers of enforcement and sanction. Usually, such provisions are confined to global trade and financial agreements.

The UK parliament has debated a petition opposing this new Treaty. The Canadians are consulting with anyone showing a heartbeat, including indigenous tribes, on the draft text.

Why is it in our interests to increase the size and range of the WHO pelagic bureaucrats? How will it better serve our neighbourhood? Or will it create a new platform for feuding between the US and China?

Since Covid, international relations have changed. China is making its mark on its own terms with far-reaching effects. The US is friend-shoring while wracked by US$22 trillion of debt.

Brexit, Make America Great Again, and collapsed supply chains showed globalisation has passed its high-tide mark.

Before signing up to a pandemic treaty, should we not wrap up our own Covid inquiry? Given the fiscal hydrant and the mandate hangover, should not the public be consulted?

How will supercharging WHO improve the resilience of our own crumbling health system? Rather than pouring more money or authority into such foreign chambers it is time to focus on our own priorities. If the health system is failing now with colds and flu there is no chance with another pandemic.

We need to boost our own supply chain reliability. It was companies like AstraZeneca and Pfizer that made the greatest difference during the pandemic, not WHO.

MFAT should be focused on the relationships that enhance our resilience with reliable partners and more practically help our friends in the Pacific.

This work on a new WHO treaty sits within Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s tenure. Her offbeat priorities have resulted in no recognisable framework to make an assessment.

Indeed, even the Aussies feel we are becoming increasingly irrelevant to their interests. More disturbing is ASEAN members asking: Where are you New Zealand?

How to proceed? The next government will need to redress our fundamental weaknesses in the military to ensure we at least have a practical response to adverse weather events in our neighbourhood.

That will help restore some relevance and allow us to build strong bilateral friendships that we can rely on. Our relationship capital is scarce and should not be squandered on further entrenching power at the WHO via an unmandated treaty.