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World Health Organization Reaches Agreements on Pandemics . . . Which Threaten Freedom of Expression

The debate has focused on preventing future pandemic threats. Has the draft overlooked other points? What impact will the agreement have on essential liberties, especially freedom of expression?

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(ZENIT News / Mexico City, 07.03.2024).- On June 28, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) established that “The Members States of the World Health Organization have agreed a global process to write and negotiate an agreement or another international instrument, in the framework of the Constitution of the World Health Organization, to strengthen the prevention, preparation and answer to pandemics.” Is there something more behind the document than a medical agreement?

Stefano Gennarini commented to ZENIT as early as August 25, 2023, that there are real threats in this new WHO treaty on pandemics, as it can be transformed into a bureaucratic process that gives it control over national policies and that countries’ bureaucracies stagnate in requirements instead of actions during future pandemics. Could it be that WHO intends to dominate, and not just give service?

Officially, the objectives WHO expresses with the agreement on pandemics are to guarantee clear tasks and procedures, to guarantee long-term support to public and private sectors, to promote an approach that encompasses all instances of the Administration and the society as a whole, and the integration of the ambits of performance such as research, innovation, financing and transport. Finally, it seeks a political commitment continued long-term. These objectives, especially the latter, insinuate that WHO sticks its hand in administrations, private sectors and countries’ global established policies . . .  from its external position.

The first detail that calls attention is that the agreement sets binding legal norms on international cooperation, which reinforce WHO’s role when a pandemic emerges, in addition to exacting the “management” of information to avoid “too much information, false or deceitful information, in digital and physical milieus during an outbreak of disease,” as it causes “confusion” and “mistrust” of health authorities. The control of information would ensure WHO’s protection. But, why protect it so much?

According to Giorgio Mazzoli in The Daily Signal, it would seem that the Organization wants to censure what must be said about the evolution of a pandemic, reducing open and transparent discourse. Could it be that to protect the life of citizens abuses can be committed over their human rights? Many systematic abuses occurred in the past century during emergencies and public crises, including the past COVID pandemic.

The draft of the agreement on pandemics acknowledges respect for human rights, but to attempt against the freedom of expression without saying it refutes the affirmation. It was perceived thus in the recent rejection  of WHO’s General Direction, headed by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in face of criticism of the agreement’s draft that refers to sovereignty and personal freedoms. The statement referred to the criticisms as “a torrent of false news, lies and conspiratorial theories.”

The new Director of the Pan-American Health Organization, Brazilian Jarbas Barbosa, said after a meeting with representatives of  Latin American and Caribbean countries on the agreement on pandemics: “The countries of our region must take advantage of the ongoing negotiations for a new instrument, as it is a unique opportunity that perhaps won’t be repeated so soon.”

Other personalities see the draft from another angle: Rajat Khosla, Director of the International Institute of Global Health of the United Nations University  in Malaysia said to Infobae: “The most important and invisible topics in the response to COVID-19 were human rights and equity. The pandemic exposed the social and health injustices suffered by millions of people around the world.”

Francisco Vargas, advisor on medical innovation of the Doctors without Borders humanitarian organization, also pointed out to Infobae that “the global agreement is hopeful. As a legally binding agreement was reached in 2023 for the control of tobacco, we think a similar agreement for future pandemics could spell many benefits for humanity, especially that access to vaccines, treatments and other health technologies be guaranteed. However, it adds that the draft should be improved. “It has a weak language  that doesn’t commit strongly to make efforts such as more global production and distribution of vaccines and treatments. We don’t want what happened with COVID to happen again: many States contributed financing in research and development, but then the commercialization and distribution were put in the hands of private companies, which limited access to a great part of the world population.”

Giorgo Mazzoli also noted that the very broad and ambiguous writing of the draft has the profile of a dangerous deviation in the norms it proposes , legitimizing the violations of freedom of expression that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another notorious element pointed out by Francisco Viegas  is that the negotiations for the agreement give a “limited participation “ to civil society, which “does not enable greater transparency and for the society to also contribute its opinions to improve the draft.”

Thomas Cueni, Director General of the International Federation of Associations of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers, reported to Reuters Agency  that “the agreement must be based on the strong points of the private sector for innovative research and development, the speedy broadening of manufacturing and distribution, which rests on a solid system of intellectual property,” showing that not only WHO can opine and comment what happens in a pandemic.

The deadline to subscribe to the agreement is May 2024 and demands that WHO’s Member States guarantee public health to prevent future pandemics without public health curtailing fundamental liberties.

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Rafael Manuel Tovar

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