By Ching-Fu Lin and Chuan-Feng Wu
The COVID-19 pandemic has blatantly exposed the flaws of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its International Health Regulations (IHR) in addressing cross-border communicable diseases. Commentators have examined the IHR’s decades of struggle in fulfilling its objectives to control cross-border pandemics such as COVID-19, pointing out problems over the level of obligation, precision of language, delegation of power, settlement of dispute, and lack of enforcement power, among others. What has been overlooked, however, is the crucial question of whether the institutional design of the IHR enables the WHO and its Member States to deliver good global pandemic governance.
We argue that the IHR is ill-designed: its rules and mechanisms are disproportionately tied to the Director General’s (DG) exercise of power, rendering insufficient member access to and participation in core decision-making and greater tendency of regulatory capture. For example, the IHR failed to facilitate the timely declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) due to the DG’s and the Emergency Committee’s misinterpretation and misapplication of rules allegedly driven by political considerations. On 23 January 2020, even when COVID-19 cases had already been found outside of China, thereby indicating the risk of cross-border transmission (IHR Article 12(4)(e)), the second meeting of the Emergency Committee decided to confine the definition of “international spread” to “having actual local spread of COVID-19 in a country beyond China,” instead of “having the potential for, or a risk of, cross-border transmission,” and refused to declare a PHEIC. The WHO is also criticized for abusing its bureaucratic influences to further the agendas of individual Member States like China, letting politics override science.