Viewpoint by Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. and Jainendra Karn *
NEW DELHI (IDN) – Since time immemorial, humanity has confronted natural disasters and pandemics continually, and yet survived. But COVID-19 is unique in the sense that it has shaken and stirred both the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the world to the core. With over 5.9 million COVID-19 cases and over 362,000 deaths globally, the very experience is the most overwhelming in our living memory.
In these distressing times, India has assumed the chairmanship of the 34-member WHO’s executive board on May 22. The position is held on a rotational basis among regional groups, and the tenure is for one year. Union Health Minister of India, Dr Harsh Vardhan, took over from Dr Hiroki Nakatani of Japan.
The challenges within the WHO are immense and have further aggravated. Perhaps it is the first time in its history that the WHO is caught in a ménage à trios between two major powers viz. U.S. and China.
President Donald Trump announced on May 29 that the United States “will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving, urgent global public health needs”. He did the same with UNESCO and UNHRC.
The U.S. is by far the WHO’s biggest donor, and any suspension of funding would have a disastrous effect on the world’s most vulnerable countries in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Prof. Karol Sikora, former head of the WHO’s cancer program mentioned that states with weaker health systems and lower-income countries stand to lose out if the U.S. pulled the plug.
Moreover, at least 100 of the 194 members of the World Health Assembly are arraigned against China. The U.S. also alleges that the WHO favoured Beijing despite Beijing being not entirely transparent in handling and sharing real-time information about the coronavirus with the international community.
How shall the turbulence in the WHO impact the response of the international community to deal with COVID-19 needs to be understood as there are genuine concerns that Global Health shall become an unwilling victim in this latent and manifest war between two leading powers. It also manifests in the varied response toward COVID 19 exhibited by various countries. Since the world is a heterogeneous sphere, we shall compare India and Sweden and their respective responses to COVID-19 to comprehend the situation.
In 2020, Sweden’s population is slightly over 10 Million, whereas India has over 1.38 Billion people. Historically, India was the largest economy in the world for most of the two millennia from the 1st until 19th century, and according to the IMF estimates for 2020, Indian economy is over USD 11.3 Trillion whereas Swedish economy is over USD 529.7 Billion.
For centuries, India has been a victim of foreign invasions starting from Alexander the Greek in the pre-Christian era followed by the Islamic invasions commencing from 7th century to European colonization starting from the 16th century. Sweden converted from Paganism to Christianity in the 11-12th century.
Another nation never occupied Sweden, and it has also not had any wars after the Napoleonic wars. There had been an immense drain of wealth from India for centuries. If India were to claim reparation from Britain, it should amount to staggering USD 71 Trillion.
The overall impact of it is that while Sweden has a ranking of 6 in inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), according to the 2019 UNDP2019 report, India stands at number 94.
Both India and Sweden had a varied impact on the world. Great German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel said in 1803: “Everything, yes; everything without exception has its origin in India. If one considers the superior conception which is at the basis of the truly universal Indian culture…what we in Europe call religion…no longer seems to deserve that name”.
On the other hand, Sweden gained global prominence when the Nobel Prize was established in 1895. Nobel Prize also had its fair share of controversies such as while Mahatma Gandhi never got a Nobel Prize, controversial British politician Winston Churchill who had an inherent dislike for Indians got one for his literary skills.
More recently, the recipient of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Tawakkol Karman from Yemen, linked to the ‘terrorist organization’ Muslim Brotherhood, was in the news. By a strange twist of fate, Alfred Nobel owned Bofors, a Swedish company which was involved in the bribery scandal that toppled the Rajiv Gandhi government in India in December 1989.
The typical evolution and experiences of both countries might have played a role in their reaction to COVID-19. India ranks 9th in the global infection list whereas Sweden stands at no 25. The death toll in India from coronavirus has topped the number of lives lost in China, where the pandemic started. India’s recovery rate from COVID-19 is over 42%, which is more than that of Spain, France, Italy, Russia or the U.S. but standing at only 1.3 recoveries to every death.
The Swedish rate of recovery from COVID-19 is very shocking. It is a matter of great concern for the WHO and the world as the Swedish recovery rate refuses to improve. Had it been any other developing country, the WHO and similar bodies would be dispatching daily advisories on what could be going wrong. That demands the most critical question: What’s going wrong with the Swedish rate of recovery?
While protests have erupted in Sweden as the incumbent government of Stefan Löfven, leader of the Social Democratic Party chosen for a second term, was attacked over its strategy to deal with COVID-19, its neighbouring countries viz. Denmark, Norway and Finland have closed their borders with Sweden. EU countries Greece and Cyprus have declared that they will not permit direct flights from Sweden when they open up.
In Europe, the UK and Sweden are tied in deaths per capita. Noted medical practitioner and human rights activist from Sweden, Dr Jon Tallinger states that the highest number of Covid-19 deaths per capita in Europe is in Sweden, and the current approach to treating Sweden’s elderly is nothing to be proud of. It should be condemned. Dr Tallinner, who has taken the cause of providing oxygen to senior citizens, notes that Swedish directives on how to treat Covid-19 elderly have caused a massive death toll while causing needless suffering among older adults.
Instead of lockdowns, wearing masks, gloves or other protective equipment in public which was not recommended, Sweden went for the pursuit of herd immunity as its response for COVID-19. It wanted as few people to get infected as possible, at a slow pace so that the local health system could cope.
Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell had claimed that herd immunity is not a policy but an achievable status, despite the World Health Organization saying it is highly sceptical about such a strategy. No wonder that a few days back, Sweden underwent ethical downgrading by Britain’s Standard Ethics Rating (SER) as the country refused to follow recommendations by the WHO.
Many experts say that “Sweden may have stuck to unhealthy group hypnosis”. Annika Linde, an ex-Swedish state epidemiologist, confessed that unlike India, Sweden was just ‘wrong’ not to shut down. In India, more than two-month-long lockdown, official data suggests, has prevented the loss of between 37,000 and 78,000 lives.
This is more or less on the lines of a paper published in Harvard Data Science Review which shows that an eight-week lockdown can prevent about two million cases and, at a 3% fatality rate, prevent some 60,000 deaths. Annika Linde has now become the first member of the public health establishment to break ranks after witnessing Sweden’s relatively very high death toll compared with that of its neighbours.
Dr Tallinger and other medical professionals who deal with COVID-19 patients globally know very well that it is not a terminal illness. It is treatable and not intractable despite the lack of a vaccine. However, there is a challenge for countries like India where 80 out of every 100 Covid-19 patients may be asymptomatic or could show mild symptoms leading to a lack of robust data and estimate.
No wonder India’s fatality rate at this stage is meagre, but this makes many specialists apprehensive of one-size-fits-all strategy to contain the pandemic as it has policy implications. Different states will see the infection peak at different times. Because the infection is not spreading uniformly, so many regions shall witness staggered waves. Another challenge is the absence of robust and expansive data. India might find it difficult to predict the future trajectory of the infection. This hinders the framing of any strategic and granular response to address the pandemic.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 will transform the world as we know it. The world cannot afford further devaluation of global organizations as it has grave implications for the humankind. Hopefully, the Swedish learning and the wise counsel of India would prevail in these testing times and meet the need for platforms to settle disputes, develop synergy and coordination, and bring about a rule-based order in a very fractious world.
So, the chairmanship of the executive board of the WHO at this crucial juncture will be a leadership skills test for India. Not only to address the COVID-19 pandemic at local levels effectively across the globe, but also to steer and give direction to the WHO when the U.S. finally pulls out, thereby safeguarding Global Health and its effective delivery to the peoples of the world. [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 May 2020]
* Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. is an ex-diplomat and Jainendra Karn is a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).
Image: Courtesy of the Economic Times.
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