Transforming global narratives
“This year's World Health Assembly will play a vital role in shaping the global health architecture of the future, and in strengthening WHO to fulfill its mission and mandate,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
told the WHA meeting in May.
Global health today means “post-Westphalian public health
.” This term describes a form of public health governance that departs from the Westphalian healthcare model emphasising the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference
. It is a response to the growing influence of globalisation that combines the interests of multinational corporations and international organisations and prioritises multilateral activity and alliances. In many regards, this is distinct from the history of international cooperation during the Cold War (poliomyelitis, smallpox and other international health programmes). At that time, it was a matter of nations’ collective efforts, whereas today the focus is on evolving a supranational system to govern global health and respond to medical threats to health by creating a global analogue of an “air defence system.”
These trends have all been on display during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more specifically the international health events that occurred in May and June 2021, including the 74th Session of the WHA, the G20 Global Health Summit, and a G7 meeting. The pandemic theme was also taken up at the Russia-US summit held in Geneva on June 16, 2021. Speaking at his news conference following the meeting, US President Joe Biden traced the trajectory of the fight against global health threats, saying that it was necessary to develop a global physical mechanism for identifying future pandemics.
Interestingly, it was at these WHO-sponsored meetings that world leaders formulated new global health narratives. The main targets of the global health governance system are “prevention,” “detection,” “response,” and “recovery” in the face of pandemic threats to health
. In addition, there are new transnational global health actors, such as GAVI
and UNICEF, CEPI, Global Health Security Agenda Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
, WTO, WEF
and others, which are developing new public-private business
partnership models. The WHO has also advanced some additional initiatives, including the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR), technical recommendations, the Solidarity clinical trials, a UN supply task force, an initiative to accelerate access to anti-COVID-19 resources, including those offered by COVAX partnership and the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.
These meetings have also consolidated the “one health” concept that was formulated in the 2010s and is now reflected in the One World One Health slogan of the global health campaign. This concept is associated with the strategic global security discourse. Politicians, scientists and international organisations and funds were focused on the “build back better” plan aimed at promoting global immunisation programmes, developing strategies for ending the ongoing pandemic crisis, and looking for common approaches to head off future threats to global health. Thus, the pandemic has resulted in a new attempt to unify the globe through disease, with a global immunisation programme likely to be the end result.
Strange though it may seem, the international dialogue during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests parallels with discussions at the 19th-century International Sanitary Conferences convened amid cholera epidemics, construction of the Suez Canal, and an upsurge in world trade. Historians agree that despite great strides in international cooperation, relations between countries were growing increasingly antagonistic at that time. We observed similar trends at the start of the pandemic, when tensions were on the rise between the US and China, the US and the WHO, etc., against
the background of developing countries’ appeals to the WHO to “draw up a global agreement for rapid and universal access to quality-guaranteed vaccines and treatment.” Efforts undertaken by nations were chaotic and inconsistent.