Global health talks clouded by conspiracy theories about pandemic treaty

Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addresses the 75th World Health Assembly at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 22, 2022. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Global health leaders, gathered in Geneva on Sunday to discuss the pandemic, are facing another viral problem: a visceral, passionate online backlash that falsely accuses the World Health Organization of conspiring to take power from national governments.

The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO's 194 member states, is holding its first fully in-person event in two years as some coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted. While the assembly, now in its 75th year, is usually considered a dry, technocratic event, this year it is being framed by conspiracy theorists as a key moment in the battle between democracy and tyranny.

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The theories focus largely on the discussion of a "pandemic treaty" - a potential agreement that could one day regulate how countries prepare for and respond to future pandemics. Though such a treaty will not be agreed upon at the assembly, the backlash has spread fast and far beyond the world of global health.

"This so-called pandemic treaty is the single, greatest global power grab that any of us has seen in our lifetime," a Twitter account for the 1990s English pop group Right Said Fred posted recently, sharing an article written by a Scottish archaeologist and television host for the right-wing GB News.

A pandemic treaty is not imminent. Though member states agreed in December that a new agreement is needed, it will take years of negotiations to reach a final draft; 2024 is the target. Nor will it grant WHO sweeping new powers, as the organization has no army nor power of sanction and will still need to rely on member states to comply and enforce its rules. Some supportive experts think it is unlikely to ever happen, given the huge geopolitical divisions between key countries such as the United States and China.

But the idea has been popularized by various figures. Russell Brand, a British comedian once known for his left-wing views and hedonistic lifestyle, has warned in a video message that the negotiations for a treaty meant that democracy would be "finished" and that in the future people would say that "we lapsed into a terrible technocratic, globalist agenda."

In an interview with former Trump administration official Steve Bannon, former GOP congresswoman Michele Bachmann asserted that the Biden administration had brought amendments to global health law that "proposed that all nations of the Earth cede their sovereignty over their national health-care decisions to the WHO."

Despite criticism from fact-checking websites such as Snopes, the backlash has support from mainstream politicians in the United States. "We must never allow [President Joe] Biden to use a 'Pandemic Treaty' to give control over American public health decisions to the corrupt WHO," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote Saturday on Twitter.

Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who helps shape the political discourse for American conservatives in part through false and inflammatory innuendo, argued on his show recently that the Biden administration was giving up "power over every aspect - the intimate aspects - of your life."

"So, imagine the civil liberties abuses that you lived through during the COVID lockdowns, but permanent and administered from a foreign country," he said.

Experts who follow the WHO argue that the theories are so far-fetched that they are an inversion of reality. No potential agreement on pandemics is on the agenda for this year's assembly. Talks aren't expected to conclude until at least 2024.

Even if the text for a treaty on pandemic preparedness is reached, it would have to be signed, ratified and enforced by the member states themselves. "Any treaty will have to pass muster eventually with domestic audiences," said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

"This kind of fearmongering is a reminder of how polarized the public can be on questions of international cooperation. But at the end of the day, there's just no way any country can deal with pandemics alone," Moon said.

This week's assembly, which began on Sunday and concludes Saturday, will see representatives of member states meet to discuss various topics, including the war in Ukraine and monkeypox cases outside the traditional base for spread.

But much of the discussion is likely to be on how to navigate the end of the coronavirus pandemic and how to better prepare for the next one. In his opening remarks, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the pandemic had "turned our world upside down."

Some reforms will be discussed, even if no treaty is signed. The United States drafted amendments to the International Health Regulations, a legal framework last updated in 2005 that details how countries should respond to any public health emergency that could cross borders. The amendments seek to tighten the requirements for sending information about such an emergency to the WHO, though most of the negotiations about reforms are now expected to take place in later years.

Also on the agenda is a deal to gradually raise member states' mandatory contributions to the WHO budget, the total of which currently stands lower than the net revenue of many large hospitals in the United States.

WHO has been dogged by criticism throughout the pandemic, the most conspiratorial of which accused it of exaggerating the virus or using it as an excuse to grab power. Others have criticized the WHO and its leader for being too close to Beijing, with President Donald Trump calling the organization "China-centric" when cutting funding and pulling the United States' membership (the Biden administration later rejoined and resumed funding).

Much of the current criticism of a potential treaty on pandemic preparedness has come from English-language countries.

In Canada, Conservative politician Leslyn Lewis, a party leadership hopeful, has said that a treaty would be "essentially eroding our democracy," while the anti-lockdown United Australia party ran a full-page advertisement in newspapers that accused major political parties of planning to transfer "all our health assets and hospitals to the Chinese-controlled WHO."

But the idea is not limited to the anglosphere, with anti-lockdown protests in Germany taking aim at the "WHO-Pandemievertrag." Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has become a hero for the movement after a video on social media appeared to show him saying he would never sign a treaty on pandemic preparedness.

The WHO has responded to some of the criticisms, with Tedros saying recently that there was a "small minority of groups making misleading statements and purposefully distorting facts. I want to be crystal clear. WHO's agenda is public, open and transparent. WHO stands strongly for individual rights."

Some of the fiercest criticism of a potential treaty on pandemics has come from Russia and China. Russian state news outlets have suggested that reforms to the WHO would be a power grab by the United States and its allies, while on Chinese social media a petition recently circulated saying that a pandemic treaty would allow the WHO to control Beijing's pandemic response.

China, where the coronavirus first took hold, has been criticized by the WHO and some member states for not sharing full information in early 2020 and later allegedly obstructing a WHO-backed investigation into the virus's origins - both potential breaches of the International Health Regulations, to which Beijing is already bound.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who consulted on the 2005 amendments to the International Health Regulations, wrote Thursday on Twitter that many conservatives were angered that Beijing "deceived the world" but called it "pure hypocrisy" to say their own countries should not conform to global health norms.

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