World Health Assembly clouded by pandemic treaty backlash

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World health leaders gathered in Geneva on Sunday to discuss the pandemic are facing another viral problem: a visceral and passionate online backlash that falsely accuses the World Health Organization of conspiring to seize power from national governments .

The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO’s 194 member states, is holding its first fully in-person event in two years as some coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted. While the assembly, now in its 75th year, is generally seen as a dry, technocratic event, this year it is being touted by conspiracy theorists as a key moment in the battle between democracy and tyranny.

The theories largely focus on the discussion of a “pandemic treaty” – a potential agreement that could one day regulate how countries prepare for and respond to future pandemics. Although such a treaty was not agreed upon at the assembly, the backlash spread quickly and far beyond the world of global health.

“This so-called pandemic treaty is the single greatest global power grab any of us have seen in our lifetimes,” a Twitter account of the 1990s English pop group Well said Fred posted recently, sharing an article written by a Scottish archaeologist and TV host for the right-wing GB News.

A pandemic treaty is not imminent. Although member states agreed in December that a new deal was needed, it will take years of negotiations to arrive at a final draft; 2024 is the goal. Nor will it grant sweeping new powers to the WHO, as the organization has no army or sanctioning power and will still have to rely on member states to comply and enforce its rules. Some supportive experts believe that is unlikely to happen, given the huge geopolitical divisions between key countries such as the United States and China.

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But the idea was popularized by various personalities. Russell Brand, a British comedian once known for his leftist views and hedonistic lifestyle, warned in a video message that treaty negotiations meant democracy would be “over” and that in the future would say that “we have fallen into a terrible technocratic and globalist agenda”.

In an interview with former Trump administration official Stephen K. Bannon, former GOP Congresswoman Michele Bachmann claimed that the Biden administration made amendments to the Global Health Act that “proposed that all nations on Earth cede sovereignty over their national health care decisions to WHO.”

Despite criticism from fact-checking websites such as Snopes, the backlash has support from mainstream politicians in the United States. “We must never allow [President] Biden will use a “pandemic treaty” to give control of U.S. public health decisions to the corrupt WHO,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote Saturday. on Twitter.

Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who helps shape the political discourse of American conservatives in part through false and inflammatory innuendo, recently argued on his show that the Biden administration was giving up “power in every aspect – the intimate aspects – of your life. ”

“So imagine the civil liberties assaults you experienced during the covid shutdowns, but permanent and administered from a foreign country,” he said.

Experts who follow the WHO argue that the theories are so outlandish that they are an inversion of reality. No potential pandemic agreement is on the agenda for this year’s meeting. The talks are not expected to conclude until at least 2024.

Even if the text of a treaty on pandemic preparedness is reached, it will have to be signed, ratified and implemented by member states themselves. “Any treaty will eventually have to succeed in reaching agreement with a domestic audience,” said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Center for Global Health at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

“This kind of alarmism is a reminder of how polarized the public can be on issues of international cooperation. But at the end of the day, no country can deal with pandemics alone,” Moon said.

This week’s assembly, which started on Sunday and ends on Saturday, will see representatives of member states meet to discuss various topics, including the war in Ukraine and cases of monkeypox outside the traditional base of spread.

But much of the discussion will likely be about how to handle the end of the coronavirus pandemic and better prepare for the next one. In his opening address, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the pandemic had “turned our world upside down”.

Some reforms will be discussed, even if no treaty is signed. The United States has drafted amendments to the International Health Regulations, a legal framework last updated in 2005 that details how countries must respond to any public health emergency that might cross borders. The amendments aim to strengthen requirements for sending information about such an emergency to the WHO, although most negotiations over the reforms are now expected to take place in the coming years.

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Also on the agenda is an agreement to gradually increase Member States’ assessed contributions to the WHO budget, the total of which is currently less than the net income of many major hospitals in the United States.

The WHO has been dogged by critics throughout the pandemic, the most conspiratorial of whom have accused it of exaggerating the virus or using it as an excuse to seize power. Others have criticized the WHO and its chief for being too close to Beijing, with President Donald Trump calling the organization ‘China-centric’ as it cut funding and pulled out US membership. (the Biden administration later joined and took over the funding).

Much of the current criticism of a potential pandemic preparedness treaty comes from English-speaking countries.

In Canada, Conservative politician Leslyn Lewis, a candidate for the party’s leadership, said a treaty would “essentially erode our democracy”, while anti-lockdown party United Australia ran a full-page advertisement in the newspapers accusing the main political parties of planning to transfer “all our health assets and our hospitals to the Chinese-controlled WHO”.

But the idea is not limited to the Anglosphere, with anti-lockdown protests in Germany targeting the “WHO-Pandemievertrag”. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has become a hero of the movement after a social media video emerged showing him saying he would never sign a pandemic preparedness treaty.

The WHO has responded to some of the criticism, with Tedros recently saying there is “a small minority of groups making misleading claims and deliberately misrepresenting facts. I want to be crystal clear. The WHO agenda is public, open and transparent. The WHO strongly defends individual rights.

Some of the fiercest criticism of a potential pandemic treaty has come from Russia and China. Russian state media suggested WHO reforms would be a power grab by the US and its allies, while on Chinese social networks a petition recently circulated saying that a pandemic treaty would allow the WHO to control Beijing’s response to the pandemic.

China, where the coronavirus first took hold, has been criticized by the WHO and some member states for not sharing full information in early 2020 and subsequently obstructing an investigation backed by the WHO on the origins of the virus – two potential breaches of the International Health Regulations, to which Beijing is already bound.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who consulted on the 2005 amendments to the International Health Regulations, wrote Thusday on Twitter that many conservatives were furious that Beijing “tricked the world”, but called it “sheer hypocrisy” to say that their own country should not comply with global health standards.

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