NEW DELHI: As the 73rd session of the World Health Assembly got underway at the first ever virtual session, 116 countries including 54 members of the African bloc backed an EU-Australian resolution for a probe into the pandemic. Those numbers were much smaller last evening when India joined, 62 in all. Clearly, there is a worldwide perception that China is at fault and a probe is required. The resolution calls for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive” evaluation into the Coronavirus outbreak. The resolution does not mention China by name or even Wuhan city where the outbreak was first reported but calls on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population including the possible role of intermediate hosts”.
The Australian government said the wording of the resolution was strong enough to ensure a proper investigation and it was the first step towards transparency. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “There is positive support for an independent review into the pandemic to help the world learn the lessons necessary to protect global health”.
Curiously, the U.S. does not figure on the list of countries backing the resolution although its diplomats are demanding tougher language which mentions Wuhan. Russia figures on the list although it is seen as China’s main strategic partner. South Korea is also a signatory even though it has a history of treading softly around China.
India’s stand is in line with Prime Minister Modi’s call at the G20 virtual session in March for reform of the WHO, transparency and accountabilty. But Dr Srikanth Kondapalli, China scholar at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that aside, “India joined in because there is no specific mention of China by name and therefore the risk of annoying Beijing was seen as low. But the resolution is a huge loss of face for China, especially President Xi Jinping who is under considerable pressure back home. Expect China to do everything possible to ensure the resolution is defeated”.
It’s not clear if the resolution will be discussed at the World Health Assembly on Monday but a showdown is anticipated with China expected to oppose it tooth and nail. Beijing has another concern: Taiwan. The U.S. and many other countries are backing Taiwan’s appeal for observer status, but whether a majority of the 194 members will line up behind Taiwan is not clear.
India is yet to reveal its mind, perhaps preoccupied with its expected election as head of the assembly’s executive board. India, among other countries, would probably prefer that the assembly focus on the public health priorities generated by the pandemic and evolve effective measures to counter it.
There is also a draft EU resolution calling for “universal, timely and equal access” to Coronavirus treatments and vaccines but the U.S. is reportedly unhappy with it. The resolution also calls for “voluntary pooling and licensing of patents to facilitate, timely, equitable and affordable access to them”. This is in line with the WTO framework. There is also pressure from 150 world leaders and experts for a “people’s vaccine” without any patent restrictions.