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Activists query motive for UN health meet in Geneva

Monday, May 13th, 2024 02:54 | By
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and local community leaders show solidarity ahead of the pandemic preparedness agreement talks scheduled for May 27- June 1, 2024 in Geneva, Switzerland. The organisations have raised alarm over a sinister motive by rich nations to have a treaty that favours them. PHOTO/George Kebaso

The rich nations are on the spot again, barely three years since the inequities that saw them hoard the lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines as poor countries suffered.

This time round, they are accused of encroaching on a proposed global pandemic preparedness plan, and altering key suggestions for a collective agreement.

However, voices dissenting against what is described as a sinister motive by the rich countries, are growing louder by the day, with the final stage for a deal in Geneva, Switzerland, only 13 days away.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) and communities of vulnerable people in Kenya yesterday condemned what they termed as a clandestine plan by the West, to once again have an upper hand in the expected Geneva outcome.

The UN family, comprising 194 countries, will convene for a six-day World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting in Geneva from May 27 to June 1, 2024 to seal the agreement aimed at ensuring countries are better equipped to deal with the next health disaster, or to prevent it altogether.

However, many communities from the global South, which largely involves countries from Africa and Asia, are reading a sinister motive, and questioning the alteration of certain suggestions around equity and accountability.

“The calls for accountability are not isolated; they echo across prominent international bodies and experts,” said Allan Maleche, Executive Director, Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and Aids yesterday during an advocacy campaign by the CSOs for an equitable pandemic agreement.

He argued in a statement read on his behalf by Timothy Wafula, the organisation’s Program Manager that the absence of independent oversight is troubling, as relying solely on state self-reporting mechanisms has proven inadequate time and again.

“The lessons of the International Health Regulations (IHR) also should serve as a stark reminder of the perils of incomplete compliance,” he added.

Present proposals

In its current form, the CSOs are arguing that the present proposal falls short of many poor countries’ expectations, that equity cannot be achieved without robust mechanisms for accountability and enforcement.

In its present form, the proposal guarantees a mere 20 percent of pandemic-related health products to the World Health Organisation (WHO), leaving the remaining 80 percent vulnerable to the chaotic scramble witnessed during the COVID-19 crisis. “Have we not learned from our recent history?” queried Maleche, a legal expert.

The CSOs are also arguing that a number of articles that were meant to uphold preparedness monitoring and functional reviews have been diluted to insignificance.

“There are no provisions for reporting or verification; and mechanisms for accountability have been weakened or altogether omitted,” added Dr Samuel Kinyanjui, Kenya Country Director, AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

He observed that in the current proposal, financial commitments – aspects that are crucial for establishing a robust pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response architecture – are not binding and less coherent.

“Without a long-term financing strategy, we risk repeating the failures of the past,” he said, noting that despite the civil society’s important contributions during crises, it remains on the fringes of decision-making processes.

Meaningful participation

Ahead of the May 27 to June 1 meeting, Dr Kinyanjui is calling for the voices of the CSOs to be formally included and honoured in the fabric of the agreement to ensure meaningful participation.

“As we approach the final negotiations, let us not forget the stakes at hand. The consequences of failure are too dire to contemplate,” he said, urging delegates to heed the warnings of experts and to take decisive action to rectify the critical shortcomings in the proposed text.

Fitsum Lakew Alemayehu, WACI Health’s Africa Union Liaison Manager, was categorical that empty gestures and hollow promises will not shield the poor countries from the ghost of another global health disaster. “It is time for action, for accountability, and for solidarity in the face of uncertainty,” he stated as the CSOs declared against profit-driven policies at the expense of global health condemning the deeply flawed Proposal for the WHO Pandemic Agreement.

Alemayehu said it’s important for the voices of civil society to be included as a vital tool for meaningful participation and effective governance.

The April 16, 2024, Proposal for the WHO Pandemic Agreement has undergone extensive negotiations, resulting in a text that has been watered down and lacks accountability.

“The recent duplication of the text is filled with tired expression, anaemic in obligations, and devoid of any accountability,” Dr Kinyanjui added, arguing that the proposal, criticised by The Lancet as “shameful, unjust, and inequitable,” fails to prioritise global health security over profit-driven interests.

The statistics underscore the urgent need for equitable access to life-saving medical resources.

Calls for accountability have been widespread, echoed by the United Nations General Assembly and prominent international bodies. “Relying solely on state self-reporting mechanisms does not work,” stated Kinyanjui.

James Kamau, CEO of the Kenya Treatment Access Movement (KETAM), emphasised the need for binding financial commitments to establish a robust pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response architecture. “Without binding financial commitments and a coherent long-term financing strategy, we risk repeating the failures of the past,” warned Kamau.

 As negotiations enter their final stretch, the coalition of civil society organisations urges delegates to heed the warnings of experts and take decisive action.

Early in the year, WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noted that the momentum to reach an agreement had been slowed down by entrenched positions, which were also full of fake news, lies, and conspiracy theories.

“Future generations may not forgive us,” he warned.

Shaken by the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO member states decided more than two years ago to start negotiating an international accord aimed at ensuring countries are better equipped to deal with the next health catastrophe, or to prevent it altogether.

It can be vividly remembered during the pandemic how countries including Kenya, suffered shortages of Covid-19 vaccines forcing some countries to share their stocks.

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