Among the many mistakes made by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the global COVID-19 response – arguably none were more harmful than the lack of a sense of urgency displayed by its Director-General in delaying the pandemic declaration in the early days of the outbreak, says AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF). As the process to submit names for a new WHO chief nears its end, AHF urges United Nations Member States to promptly nominate qualified candidates and appoint a new WHO Director-General at the end of the electoral proceedings in May 2022.
Cases of the novel coronavirus were first reported in late 2019, and by the end of January 2020, more than 8,100 people in multiple countries had been infected. By late February 2020, the virus had spread to more than 50 countries, yet the WHO, led by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, waited until March 11, 2020, to declare the outbreak a pandemic.
“Precious lost response time and countless avoidable deaths – those were among the devastating costs for waiting so long to declare COVID-19 a pandemic,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein. “The world needed WHO’s guidance to get through this disaster, but high-level leadership was sorely lacking from the start of the crisis. The world deserves the most capable leader at WHO’s helm. UN Member States must nominate and appoint a new Director-General.”
In addition to delays in COVID-19 declarations, the WHO, under Dr. Tedros’s charge, also delayed declaring the 2018-2019 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). By the time a PHEIC was declared, Ebola had spread to a populous city and multiple African countries, and more than 1,600 people had died.
“Sadly, we’ve seen too many instances during health emergencies where Dr. Tedros failed to act in accordance with his charter to lead the WHO, which is supposed to be the world’s preeminent global public health institution for infectious disease preparedness and response,” added Weinstein. “The WHO lacks the authority and credibility needed to effectively respond to outbreaks, which was evident by countries not adhering to WHO advice and guidance. There was mass confusion with everything from travel restrictions to mask-wearing. All that falls squarely on Dr. Tedros’s shoulders. The WHO needs a new leader with a true sense of urgency who is not hesitant to act quickly when needed.”
UN Member States have until mid-September 2021 to submit candidates for the Director-General position. If there is more than one candidate, a forum will convene in March 2022, before the final vote by Member States at the 75th World Health Assembly in May.