Australia is to push for an international investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic at next month’s annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, the decisionmaking body of the WHO, its prime minister said yesterday.
Australia wants the WHO to be strengthened and is suggesting introducing inspectors with the power to enter a nation to respond more quickly to a health crisis in the style of weapons inspectors.
Australia sits on the executive board of the assembly, which determines WHO policies and appoints the director-general. The assembly is due to meet on May 17.
The pandemic is believed to have emerged in a market selling wildlife in Wuhan, China, late last year. It has spread around the world infecting more than 2.6 million people and killing more than 184,000.
The WHO’s response to the outbreak has become contentious, with US President Donald Trump accusing it of being “China-centric” and suspending US funding.
Diplomats believe the meeting opens the door for discussion of Australia’s call for an inquiry because agenda items already include calls for a “lessons learned” review of health emergencies.
“The World Health Assembly is coming up in May. There are opportunities to pursue that matter there and that is our first port of call,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
Australia has overcome the worst of its coronavirus outbreak, which is why it has moved on to lobbying other nations to support its call for an inquiry, but it understood that other nations were still dealing with high death rates, sources said.
Morrison has called leaders in France, Germany and the US, and is expected to lobby Britain and Canada as Australia seeks support from “like-minded” nations.
France and Britain on Wednesday said that it was not the time for an investigation.
Morrison told reporters he understood hesitation about the timing and played down suggestions China would be targeted.
“Our purpose here is just pretty simple, we would like the world to be safer when it comes to viruses,” he said.
Although the proposal would be for a broad review of the coronavirus outbreak and the WHO response, which could then propose ways to strengthen WHO powers, Morrison said that he supported a weapons-inspector-style arrangement for health emergencies that nations would sign up to.
“They don’t have a roving commission to go anywhere they want in the world, but if you are going to be a member of a club like the World Health Organization there should be obligations and responsibilities attached,” he said.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said the agency would carry out an “after-action” review when the pandemic is over.
Former Australian diplomat and intelligence chief Richard Maude said Australia had led coalitions of nations on issues including disarmament, non-proliferation and Russia’s downing of flight MH17.
“Australia has a good record of getting things done in multilateral processes, including the United Nations,“ said Maude, executive director of policy at the Asia Society Australia. “The problem for Australia right now is that while the objectives — greater transparency and learning lessons — are reasonable and important, the issue of the origins of the virus and the path of its transmission have become so caught up in geopolitics and deteriorating US-China ties that China is very unlikely to cooperate.”
In related news, China yesterday announced that it would give another US$30 million to the WHO to help in the global fight against the pandemic, days after Washington said it would freeze funding.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) said that the new donation would be in addition to a previous US$20 million committed and would help “strengthen developing countries’ health systems.”
He added that China’s contribution to the UN agency “reflects the support and trust of the Chinese government and people for the WHO.”
In announcing the funding freeze last week, Trump accused the WHO of covering up the seriousness of the outbreak in China before it spread.
He has also charged the WHO with being “very China-centric,” despite Washington’s heavy funding.
US taxpayers provided between US$400 million and US$500 million per year to the WHO, while “in contrast, China contributes roughly US$40 million a year and even less,” Trump said.
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