The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is setting up an independent panel to review its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the response by governments worldwide.
The announcement on Thursday follows strong criticism by US President Donald Trump’s administration, which accused the WHO of being “China-centric”, and US formal notification on Tuesday that it was withdrawing from the United Nations’s agency in a year’s time.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have agreed to head the panel, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“The magnitude of this pandemic, which has touched virtually everyone in the world, clearly deserves a commensurate evaluation, an honest evaluation,” Tedros told a virtual meeting with representatives of WHO’s 194 member states.
The co-chairs will select the other panel members, he said.
The panel will then provide an interim report to an annual meeting of health ministers in November and present a “substantive report” next May.
“This is not a standard report that ticks a box and is then put on a shelf to gather dust. This is something we take seriously,” Tedros said.
In May, WHO’s member states adopted unanimously a resolution proposed by the European Union calling for an evaluation of the global response to the pandemic.
Addressing Thursday’s meeting, Clark said the assignment would be “exceptionally challenging”.
Johnson Sirleaf, whose country was ravaged by West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, the world’s worst, in 2014-2016, said she looked forward “to doing all we can to respond” to the pandemic’s challenges.
More than 12 million people are reported to have been infected by the novel coronavirus worldwide and 548,429 have died, according to a Reuters news agency’s tally.
Ilona Kickbusch, a global health expert and former WHO head of communications, told Reuters on Wednesday any review had to be credible.
“It has to be seen as a group of people that one can trust, that can start the process, and will probably involve others,” she said.
The United States on Tuesday formally started its withdrawal from the WHO, making good on Trump’s threats to deprive the UN body of its top donor over its management of the pandemic.
Public health advocates and Trump’s political opponents voiced outrage at the move.
Tedros hit out at divisions in the international community and warned of severe consequences if this were not rectified.
“Make no mistake: The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself – rather, its the lack of leadership and solidarity at the global and national levels,” he said.
“We cannot defeat this pandemic as a divided world. The virus thrives on division but is thwarted when we unite.
“How is it difficult for humans to unite to fight a common enemy that’s killing people indiscriminately?
“Together is the solution, unless we want to give the advantage the enemy, to the virus that has taken the world hostage – and this has to stop.”
Tedros said it was time for honest reflection, and stressed it was important to remain vigilant.
“We’re in the midst of this battle. The battle of our lives, and we have to do better, not just now but for the future. Because these threats will never stop and, in all likelihood, they will get worse,” he said.