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COVID-19: where does the World Health Organization go from here? – podcast

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, three experts on global health explain why COVID-19 is a moment of reckoning for the World Health Organization (WHO), and where it goes from here. And to mark one year since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, we hear from Conversation editors around the world on the situation where they live.

The WHO had a torrid 2020. Although it declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern in late January, much of the world was slow to react. And it wasn’t until March 11, when the WHO’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described it as a pandemic, that countries began to take the virus seriously and began locking down.

But the WHO faced criticism for the way it initially responded to the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan. It was lambasted for being too “China-centric” by President Donald Trump, who suspended funding for the WHO in April and began withdrawing the US from the organisation. While the Biden administration has since rejoined, serious questions are still being asked of whether the current system for protecting the world from emerging viruses is fit for purpose. And an ongoing WHO investigation into the origins of the virus in Wuhan continues to cause controversy.

In this episode, we speak to Peter Gluckman, former scientific adviser to the prime minister of New Zealand and director of Koi Tū, the Center for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, about why he thinks world leaders should use this moment as a catalyst for reform. “I think we must learn from this is that there’s a need to separate the technical from the political,” he says, and explains how momentum is growing around proposals he’s been involved in for a new way to respond to future disease outbreaks.

Ana Amaya, assistant professor at Pace University and an associate research fellow at the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies, says the current global health system is no longer acceptable to many developing countries in the global south. “We’re in a strange time where the WHO will only be strengthened or weakened,” says Amaya. “There’s no possibility of it going back to the status quo pre-pandemic.” She explains her new research on the role that regional organisations, such as Asean in south-east Asia, or Mercosur in South America, can play in reacting to global health emergencies.

But calls for reform of the WHO are not new, and the organisation has faced criticism over the way it’s handled previous epidemics, from H1N1 to Ebola. Andrew Lakoff, professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, explains what process of assessment and reform the WHO went through after each of these. He says that whatever diagnosis emerges of what and where the failures were, will ultimately influence what solutions are built in the future. “If the origin of this one is understood to have to do with a zoonotic transmission, a spillover from wildlife into human populations, that would lead to a whole set of possible reform measures and initiatives that would try to prevent that in the future,” says Lakoff.

Read more: Why the WHO, often under fire, has a tough balance to strike in its efforts to address health emergencies

This episode also features perspectives from The Conversation’s global network about the current coronavirus situation around the world. We hear from Hannah Hoag in Canada, Ina Skosana in South Africa, Lionel Cavvicchioli in France, Ika Krismantari in Indonesia, Liam Petterson in Australia and Elena Sanz in Spain.

The Conversation Weekly is produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio or on Instagram at theconversationdotcom. We’d love to hear what you think of the show too. You can email us on

A transcript of this episode is available here.

News clips in this episode are from the UN, DW Espanol, France24 Arabic, Tagesschau, KTN News, Astro News, Global News, CBS News, CNA News, US Department of State, CNN, Sky News Australia, DW News, Vox Africa, Al Jazeera English, The Guardian and EU Council.

You can listen to The Conversation Weekly via any of the apps listed above, our RSS feed, or find out how else to listen here.

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