Pandemic Treaty faces uncertain future as World Health Assembly begins

The 77th World Health Assembly has begun amid delays in pandemic response negotiations and ongoing assaults on healthcare in Palestine

May 29, 2024 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Pandemic response discussions at WHA 77. Source: Geneva Health Files

Member States of the World Health Organization (WHO) have missed the deadline for negotiating a new pandemic instrument ahead of the 77th World Health Assembly (WHA77), which began in Geneva on Monday, May 27. As delegates from nearly 200 countries convened to discuss global health priorities, three years of intense negotiations reached yet another impasse.

The Pandemic Treaty, intended to create a fairer and more effective global response to health emergencies than seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been a contentious topic. High-income countries clashed with lower-income nations, refusing to prioritize global solidarity over their pharmaceutical industries. Thus, the absence of a treaty as delegations arrived at the United Nations headquarters for WHA77 came as little surprise.

Read more: Countdown to consensus: will the Pandemic Treaty deliver global health equity?

Other critical negotiations, including those on the International Health Regulations (IHR), faced similar challenges. While the IHR talks have made slightly more progress, the future remains uncertain – although this week’s discussions have signaled that changes might be adopted by the end of the WHA77.

Despite these setbacks, WHO’s leadership remained generous in its optimism. “You have given it your best, even if the outcome is not what you want,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told delegates involved in the Pandemic Treaty negotiations. However, the persistent resistance to calls for more global solidarity raises doubts about the commitment of high-income countries to an equitable pandemic response.

In its opening discussions, the Assembly also avoided addressing ongoing conflicts, such as the ongoing Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. On Monday, only Malaysia mentioned the assaults on health and healthcare in Palestine, according to the People’s Health Movement’s (PHM) WHO Watch team – but a more in-depth discussion on health in the occupied Palestinian territories expected on Wednesday could attempt to rectify this omission.

Future direction: General Program of Work, finances, and climate change

Beyond current geopolitical issues, WHA77 is tackling long-term topics that will shape the WHO’s work in coming years. One key agenda item is the 14th General Program of Work (GPW14), outlining the organization’s main goals and challenges. Despite limited progress being made in recent meetings when it comes to WHO’s finances, discrepancies between assessed (mandatory) and voluntary contributions continue to threaten the WHO’s financial stability. Regional representatives from the Eastern Mediterranean emphasized the need for “flexible, predictable, and sustainable financing.”

Delegates are also addressing the health impacts of the climate crisis. As climate-related disasters increase displacement and suffering, the need for effective WHO strategies becomes more urgent. However, PHM criticizes the lack of action on the commercial drivers of climate change. “The demand for endless economic growth drives the continuous exploitation of people and the planet,” PHM stated, urging WHO to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable and promote community-based climate responses rooted in the ideas of universal health care and comprehensive primary health care.

What kind of health economics do we need?

The social determination of health and health economics are also on the agenda, following a report by the WHO Council on the Economics of Health for All. While the report acknowledges the link between health and economics, PHM warns that recognition alone is insufficient. “Recognizing the link between health and economics is meaningless if we ignore that the war industry, Intellectual Property rights, extractive foreign direct investment, trade agreements, and unjust global financial and debt systems harm health,” the WHO Watch team noted.

The path forward involves strengthening publicly-owned health services and state-run institutions for developing and producing medicines and health technologies. As Brazil’s delegate emphasized during discussions on health equity, “health is not a commodity to be bought… Nowhere is inequality more offensive than in health.”

Identifying capitalism as a root cause of health inequities requires more than changing metrics. The true test for WHA 77 will be whether it can take significant steps toward addressing these systemic issues.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here.