Coronavirus: WHO should change rules that led it to oppose travel restrictions, ex-head says

GENEVA (REUTERS) – The World Health Organisation should change guidelines that led it to oppose travel restrictions early in the coronavirus epidemic, said former WHO chief Gro Harlem Brundtland, who now chairs an independent watchdog that monitors the global body.

The WHO’s decision to oppose travel restrictions when it declared an international emergency on Jan 30 has been one of the steps criticised by the United States, which has announced it will quit the UN agency.

Dr Brundtland, speaking to a briefing on Friday (June 19), strongly opposed the US decision to quit the WHO. But she acknowledged a need to look at the guidelines, known as the International Health Regulations, agreed by member states years earlier and which discourage restricting trade and travel during epidemics.

The guidelines “need reform and we will propose reforms because we have seen weaknesses very clearly”, Dr Brundtland said. “In the whole process of formulating and agreeing on the International Health Regulations, many countries were adamant to try to avoid air and travel restrictions.”

She said some governments had worried that the threat of travel restrictions would cause countries not to report outbreaks.

Dr Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister who led the WHO from 1998-2003, said China’s delay last year in reporting the new coronavirus had led to more cases, but that Beijing’s response was far better than during the 2003 Sars outbreak.

“I think it’s right to say that China had maybe learnt something from the Sars experience, where they really closed down and refused to speak to the WHO and even to me as director-general when I had to enter in,” Dr Brundtland said.

“This time, China did communicate with WHO, although I do believe that it took too many days, maybe a week or two more than it should (have), to really give the information that they already had,” she said.

President Donald Trump has announced that the United States will quit the WHO and withhold funding for the body, which Mr Trump says was too supportive of China early in the crisis.

BDr rundtland said quitting the WHO was “the most astonishingly and transparently counterproductive” of all of Mr Trump’s moves against multilateral arrangements. “I believe the WHO is essential,” she added.

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