Facing intense criticism from the Trump administration over its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization has tapped two former world leaders to deliver an "honest evaluation" of the what went right, and what could have been done better as the WHO grappled with the spread of COVID-19.
Former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark and former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will co-chair the independent "preparedness and response" panel, which will eventually make suggestions on how the global health agency can better address emergencies.
Clark spoke this week with CBS News about the panel's mandate, and the challenges facing the world's premier health organization. Below are excerpts from that interview.
CBS News' Pamela Falk: Tell us what your mandate is in this new Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, and how much is the panel a response to criticism?
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark: There was a keen desire by the member states to see a full and independent and impartial view of how the response to the level of novel coronavirus had been… to look at whether the existing mechanisms, which the World Health Organization has to deal with pandemics, are adequate. It asks us to look at whether previous recommendations to change the international health regulations, under which these Public Health Emergencies are declared, have been implemented. It also asks us, not just to discern lessons learned about how WHO responded and how they communicated, but really to look forward, because I think we all have the sinking feeling that it's time we took the warning seriously — that there, the animals to humans transfer.
The world really has been somewhat flat-footed with this one, we're in for some pretty bleak times. This one has knocked us sideways, even those who've managed responses relatively well, like my own small country… We still have crippling deficits ahead of us. So, this has been a bad experience, and we need to learn from it. That's the motivation.
Falk: You said it knocked us flat-footed and took its toll in a way that wasn't expected. How much of that is what the World Health Organization has to deal with in assessing how it responded?
Clark: I think we obviously have to look at how the World Health Organization responded, that's a no-brainer, but it's one thing for the World Health Organization, as the lead global health body, to respond. It's another as to what member states then do with the information that the World Health Organization puts out there. And, you know, some responded very quickly, some didn't, so almost inevitably you will end up looking at, well, what was the response of the World Health Organization ... what happened then, and we need to, I think, come back to the very purpose of why we have organizations like the World Health Organization, or the International Monetary Fund, or the U.N. itself. And that is that there are problems bigger than what any one country can solve, and if we don't have international cooperation then, frankly, these problems are going to blow up to a great magnitude. And I think that there will need to be a discussion about whether there has been enough global solidarity on this one to avert the worst happening.
Falk: When I spoke with (WHO coronavirus special envoy) Dr. David Nabarro in late May, he said that the WHO has no power to interrogate or investigate. So in some ways is at the mercy of countries, giving it information. Can the way the World Health Organization operates change?
Clark: Well that that's certainly something that the panel needs to look at. Does it have the tools in the toolbox? ... David Nabarro is right that, in essence, it's part is one of persuasion — expecting countries will cooperate with it and, of course, hoping that when it puts advice and guidance out to all countries that it might be followed. It doesn't, for example, have the power to enter, to acquire information, it can simply ask. And so, in that position, it's very rare for the World Health Organization to criticize a member state, because it needs their cooperation…
One of the issues could be whether there's a need for a new international convention, and I'm hearing this from a number of sources now. Do we need a convention, where, providing it can be negotiated and providing we get the signatures and ratifications for it, where countries are required to notify at the earliest possible point, as now with a nuclear accident, which I think came out of the Chernobyl experience.
Falk: [WHO director-general] Dr. Tedros [Ghebreyesus] said, when he called for this panel that you are co-chairing, called for an "honest assessment." When you accept this, do you think that there have been mistakes that the WHO?
Clark: Was everything done 100% right? Probably not, but what can we learn from that to get it better next time?
Falk: President Trump, who, accused the World Health Organization of being slow, to disseminate false information. What will the panel do to address those kind of criticisms and how legitimate do you think they are?
Clark: As someone from a small country who knows that international cooperation is absolutely vital, of course, when the United States, which is such a pillar of the international system, walks away from an organization, it's really very distressing for the rest of us. I don't think these decisions are forever, and I very much hope we'll see the U.S. back in there, playing the role that it's traditionally played.
A lot of the money that's supposed to now be withdrawn, for example, was going to the final steps for polio eradication. Isn't that something we all share as a goal? … This panel will want to hear American views, regardless of the status of membership of the United States of America, and we want the truth out. We don't go in to play to one side or another, we will put the facts on the table for the international community.