Joe Biden steers US back into WHO fold

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Washington - “WHO is complete again,” Ilona Kickbusch, the founding director and chair of the Global Health Centre in Geneva, said.


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Published: Thu 21 Jan 2021, 10:48 PM

Last updated: Thu 21 Jan 2021, 11:14 PM

The international community appeared to let out a collective sigh of relief on Thursday as Washington vowed to re-engage with the World Health Organization and participate in the global pandemic response.

“WHO is complete again,” Ilona Kickbusch, the founding director and chair of the Global Health Centre in Geneva, said.

“Everybody has wanted the US back in, and having such a multilaterally-minded US administration... is a gift to the world.”

The UN health agency faced blistering attacks by former US president Donald Trump, who accused it of bungling its pandemic response, and had begun withdrawing from the organisation.

But on his first day in office Wednesday, President Joe Biden reversed that decision.

And speaking to a virtual WHO meeting on Thursday, top US scientist Anthony Fauci praised the agency for “relentlessly” working to help rid the world of Covid-19.

Biden’s chief medical adviser said the United States was well aware of the towering task ahead in reining in the pandemic, which in just over a year has claimed more than two million lives globally.

Fauci also said that Washington, long the WHO’s main donor, would once again “fulfil its financial obligations to the organisation”.

“This is a good day for WHO, and a good day for global health,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said after Fauci’s statement.

“We are all glad that the United States is staying in the family.”

Numerous countries also took the floor to celebrate the US return.

Summing up the general sentiment expressed, British ambassador Julian Braithwaite hailed the US decision to “rejoin the family of nations committed to working together through the WHO”, and to support “defeating this pandemic, the greatest challenge of our time”.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, who chairs the African Union Commission, chimed in, tweeting that he was “delighted that Biden made the return of the USA to WHO one of his first decisions”.

Observers voiced hope that the shift in Washington would have a range of positive consequences.

At a time when the WHO is facing multiple challenges, Kickbusch said the US decision to resume its financial contributions “of course makes a big difference”.

“That budget security... is important.”

Kickbusch said a new US approach should be helpful as the WHO eyes long-needed reforms.

Even if Biden’s team may stick to some of the criticisms lobbed by his predecessor, the expected “change of tone” should lead to less “destructive” interactions, she said.

Fauci’s announcement that the US will join the WHO co-led Covax scheme, to ensure all countries have equitable access to Covid-19 vaccine doses, was particularly welcomed.

“We need solidarity now more than ever,” Jeremy Farrar, head of UK-based global charity Wellcome, told AFP.

“Strong US collaboration on the international stage will be key to ending this pandemic as quickly as possible.”

Jagan Chapagain, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, also said he hoped the shift spelled “sustained support, resources and expertise that is needed from all nations to confront and end the pandemic”.

Beyond the coronavirus crisis, the arrival of a new administration in Washington could also bring an immediate boost to reproductive health services for women and girls worldwide.

Fauci said Thursday that Biden would revoke the so-called gag-rule, which Trump and previous Republican administrations have used to prohibit foreign charities from using US federal funding to provide abortion services, information, counselling or referrals.

But while the mood Thursday was largely euphoric, Kickbusch acknowledged that the chances for lasting US-backed change were less certain.

“The big elephant in the room,” she said, is that the changes made now could potentially be done away with as soon as Biden’s presidency ends.

International organisations, she said, had learned “we can’t fully rely on continuity of US policy”.

The main goal now, she said, it to try to “get out of these four years of the Biden administration as much as we can for multilateralism”.

“We have no guarantee what executive orders the next US president is going to sign,” she added.

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