19.4 C
Σάββατο, 27 Νοεμβρίου, 2021
ΑρχικήEnglish EditionThe World Health Organization's Response to Health Emergencies

The World Health Organization’s Response to Health Emergencies

By Anastasios-Fotios Tsochatzidis,

Today the greatest risk of global catastrophe is not a war, but a pandemic…. Those were the words of Bill Gates, when in a TED Talk in 2015 he warned that the world is not prepared for an epidemic, a pandemic, or an outbreak and his aforementioned statement is something that world leaders should bear in mind. Unfortunately, his words became reality in less than 5 years, precisely in December 2019, when an unprecedented outbreak of pneumonia of unknown etiology, emerged in Wuhan City, Hubei province in China. On 30th January 2020, the WHO declared the chinese outbreak of COVID-19 to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern posing a high risk to countries with vulnerable health systems. That was the first time that most of us gained a deeper knowledge of the role and the mission of the World Health Organization, an organization consisted of 194 Member States. However, what is WHO and what is its role as regards to the elimination of COVID-19’s virus?

To begin with, back in 1945, when diplomats met to form the United Nations, one of the things they discussed was setting up a global health organization. Their vision became reality on 7 April 1948, when the WHO was established by constitution. More precisely, their vision was to create a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. As a result, WHO, as the directing and coordinating authority on international health within the United Nations system, adheres to the UN values of integrity, professionalism and respect for diversity.  Moreover, according to the principles of the Preamble to the Charter of WHO, the health of all people is a fundamental condition for international peace and security, and depends on the cooperation of states, as stated “The epidemic is everyone’s business“.

Global Society after COVID-19 era. (Source: babeldc.gr)

Nevertheless, a common problem that WHO faces when called to intervene in order to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS, Ebola, COVID-19, malaria and tuberculosis, is that member-states are not willing to put their economies at risk and to shoulder the financial consequences that follow the adoption of restrictive measures. As a result, even if it is true, that the silver lining between the protection of public health and the prevention of a financial disaster is difficult to find, many states have already proved that they tend to significantly hesitate to take, at an early stage, all the appropriate measures, because they prefer to firstly measure the importance of the financial consequences rather than the effect on people’s health.

Nevertheless, the reality is that WHO cannot accomplish its vision without the aid of all member states and therefore the International Health Regulations (Règlement Sanitaire Internationale, RSI) was adopted in 1969 and recently revised in 2005 (Ratification Law 3991/11) in order to contribute to the effort of WHO to deal with epidemics. More specifically, International Health Regulations is a legally binding instrument of international law that aims for international collaboration “to prevent, protect against, control, and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks and that avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade“. Furthermore, in 2005, following the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak, several changes were made to the previous revised IHRs originating from 1969. The most significant is mentioned in art.6 of IHRs which states that in order to activate the WHO’s competence to intervene, it is mandatory for the disease to fall within the vague notion of an “international public health emergency“. That means that an entire procedure has been set by the IHRs for the designation of an illness as an international public health emergency. Furthermore, the Director-General of WHO shall determine, on the basis of the information received from member states and, in particular from the state in whose territory an incident takes place, whether an incident constitutes an international public health emergency (Art 12 par.1 of IHRs) or not. It is important to underline that crucial for WHO is not the severity of a disease, but its contagious character.

The Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Source: Council on Foreign Affairs)

From all the above, it is now clear that the fundamental first step for the activation of the sanitary alarm by the WHO is the fast, adequate and detailed information from the affected state. Therefore, art.6 par.1 of IHRs lays down the obligation of states to notify within 24 hours of any event in their territory, which may constitute an “international public health emergency”. Without an early notification from the affected state, WHO’s intervention becomes slow and ineffective. Regarding the case of COVID-19, the spread of the virus throughout the world surpassed the delayed effort of global community and as a result the epidemic disease was characterized by WHO as a pandemic.

In conclusion, it is true that WHO is an impressive international organization with 194 member states. Nonetheless, WHO’s efforts are insufficient without the aid of member states and their persistence to lay the foundations to prevent the spread of a new epidemic and work towards the protection of public health.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, International Health Regulations (IHR), Available here
  • The New York Times, What the W.H.O. does, and How U.S. Funding Cuts Could Affect It, Available here
  • World Health Organization, About WHO, Available here


Anastasios - Fotios Tsochatzidis
He comes from Serres and he is an undergraduate student in the 4th year of his studies at the Law School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He has great experience from scientific conferences of legal interest, simulations of international organizations, Erasmus+ student exchanges and voluntary actions. His favorite topics are issues around commercial and EU law. He speaks English and French. He loves travelling, reading books and swimming.