Time to Act
The WHO treaty and what it means for us
This blog is about the future, and how it depends on us
By 'us', I mean you, and me, and all other adults more or less in possession of their faculties.
It's also a piece of reluctant activism that I've been avoiding for a while. Like most of us, I've been increasingly keen to get back to the important things in this short life: people and places, creativity and nature. But if too many of us ignore this latest development, our ability to live our lives may be curtailed for the foreseeable future.
I'm talking about the pandemic treaty the World Health Organization is in the process of negotiating with most of the countries of the world. I first heard about it in January (it was announced last winter, although it’s been in the works longer) and have referred to it a couple of times in previous substacks. But it's been difficult to get much information about what exactly the treaty might mean: little has been written about it and few people seem aware of it.
This week, with representatives from governments all over the world (you can see the list of delegates here) descending on Geneva to discuss the treaty, there's growing concern. Much of it takes the form of high drama on social media predicting that by the end of the meeting, your government will have signed all your rights away in perpetuity. Not quite. A treaty, however rushed, takes time to negotiate and has to be ratified by the WHO’s member states, so there is time. (1)
Researched articles do not add much clarity. They range from this sparse piece by Reuters which make the agreement sound anodyne and technical, to those screaming about an imminent global coup by the World Economic Forum. As this piece in The Daily Sceptic shows, even legal experts disagree about the status of what might be agreed. Murky waters indeed.
That's the first problem. A global agreement about the future management of infectious disease is being decided behind the scenes without any public debate or clarity about what's being proposed.
So how serious a threat to our way of life does the WHO treaty pose?
In this succinct substack, Michael Senger has it: 'the real significance of the Pandemic Treaty is that its passage is a ratification and approval of everything the world has experienced over the past two years during COVID-19 … By signing onto the Pandemic Treaty, our leaders are signalling their approval for all this—and more—to be done again.'
Therein lies the most obvious danger. The rush to devise a new global accord about pandemic management without allowing any time for reflection or assessment of the experimental approach that has prevailed since early 2020 shows that governments haven't learnt the lessons of the past two years. Nor do they seem interested in doing so. While more and more studies and real-world evidence emerges about the damage caused by lockdowns and the hasty global rollout of a new kind of vaccine, politicians seem oblivious.
On they go, flying to an event aimed at making the approach of the past two years permanent.
In this excellent essay on the moral and psychological implications of what we've done to each other in our response to Covid, Raelle Kaia writes about how her trust and that of millions has been 'irreparably broken': 'Behind our muddled confusion, all the foundations of covid tyranny are still lying in place—just waiting to be reactivated. Governments have established their prerogative to abrogate all personal freedoms and human rights any time they declare an emergency.'
I am writing this in Portugal. A couple of weeks ago, the mandate for mask-wearing in indoor spaces was lifted. (Just in time for the tourist season. Main customers=Brits) Unlike the last time this happened when most people carried on masking, the relief was, quite literally, visible. Cashiers, bar staff, waiters were suddenly bare-faced, free from having to work long hours with their oxygen supply restricted. I finally joined the community choir which had been, to my amazement, rehearsing and performing in masks. (Just before Covid some singing lessons taught me how fundamental a good air supply is to voice work). But last week amid rising infections, rumours were circulating that on midnight on Monday, the mask mandate might go back on again.
The government denied it, with the health minister saying there would be 'no new restrictions for now'.
For now. Those two little words are a stark reminder of how arbitrary and perilous life has become: at any point the government might decide to impose life-changing restrictions.
Last summer, such last minute changes kiboshed my planned return to the UK. In what looked like a tit-for-tat measure to the British government's reimposition of quarantine on those entering from Portugal, the Portuguese government imposed a two-week quarantine for entry to the country. As a result, I was homeless in Lisbon (I'd ended my tenancy) while my flat in London lay newly vacant. Meanwhile, the Portuguese government had decided to impose vaccine passports or testing on short-term accommodation and for eating indoors at a restaurant after 3.30 pm at weekends.
The vaccine passports went away in the run-up to elections in which some politicians campaigned against 'irrational measures'. But they made a sudden reappearance in December, just as I had given up returning to the UK again and rented a flat. This time, the measures were full time, cutting off access to much of life in Lisbon for the next four months. (No problem if you were prepared to continually carry a digital device and scan personal information to commercially-appointed gatekeepers of food, drink, shelter and the company of others. I wasn’t.) Because the government realised that the Covid vaccines didn't stop transmission, the vaccine passports were supplemented by a set of testing requirements so byzantine that no one could make sense of them. They included getting an authorised test at pharmacies (who often had no appointments) or queuing at one of the metal cabins that peppered the streets. You needed a test to stay in a bar at 10.30 pm although you hadn't need at 10.29. Unless you had a pizza, in which case you could stay. Over a bleak Christmas period, I overheard a few conversations from confused tourists about how they were going to get something to eat.
In Portugal, there's no public discussion ahead of the imposition of such measures, nor any reaction subsequently. They just happen. Why is why, although I love this country and was planning to settle here and invest in property, language learning and do the whole integration shebang, I now consider it too politically unstable to make a commitment. The New Political Instability has nothing to do with the kind I'm familiar with, that associated with unstable regimes in Africa or the Middle East – it's an internal instability that can change your life almost overnight. It potentially affects all of us, and is particularly likely to strike in affluent western countries.
So that's by way of a partial answer to the question why governments seem so uninterested in examining the consequences of their decisions regarding Covid. In social and political terms, so far, they haven't really been any. Governments seem to have got the impression they can do whatever they see fit.
Personally, I’m not surprised. There’s been a level of compliance with extraordinary demands that lays waste to the belief in mature democracies inhabited by citizens delegating decision-making on a conditional and temporary basis. ‘It seems that as long as someone in authority (or with presumed authority) orders anyone to do anything, most people will just obey as if they had no rights at all. They will never look into the question of whether that authority is illegally derived, or whether the orders are morally grounded or rationally sound.’ says Kaia. ‘Instead, most people will act as if they were subjects of a monarch or a dictator rather than citizens with inalienable rights, governed by representatives with limited powers.’ She attributes this behaviour to an understanding of the social contract in parent/child terms under which it is generally assumed that leaders and institutions know best and ‘remain forever our parents.’
If agreed, the WHO's Pandemic Treaty will embed and strengthen this political attitude in both the rulers and the ruled still further.
The pandemic treaty would be only the second global public health treaty ever to be agreed, the first being an accord to reduce tobacco consumption.
As that suggests, it’s part of the new approach to public health that emerged during the Covid crisis. Until recently, Dr David Bell points out, public health was community-based and wholistic. It focused on improving living conditions and access to basic healthcare for most of the world while, in richer countries, public health officials sought to promote healthy lifestyles.
In this illuminating interview, Bell outlines the rise of global health governance which has reversed established public health approaches. Over the past two decades, the allocation of increased funding for global health initiatives has created a centralised approach driven by private and corporate interests as donors tie their funding to specific projects staffed by people of their choosing. At the same time, new global health schools have trained people from wealthy countries who need jobs in a sector where funding is concentrated in a few hands.
The opportunities have not been lost on those with commercial interests, with the result that public health ‘solutions’ have become increasingly tied to commodities. Bell rehearses the thinking of a business mind applied to public health: ‘This is what you would do. You would convince people that there’s a big problem, you would convince people that the way out of it is a pharmaceutical and you would use something like a vaccine especially one where you keep having to have one more vaccine … They’re an extremely good way of making money, irrespective of their impact on health. If you can hook a society on recurrent vaccination for as many diseases as possible, then you can really concentrate wealth within your company.’
Aren’t there skilled, knowledgable people in public health bodies who can see the conflicts of interest? Of course there are. But it’s a sector with a highly dependent workforce: ‘Your salary is dependent essentially on a person or an organisation outside that doing the funding liking what you’re doing. If you stand up and say what they’re saying is wrong,’ explains Bell, who has firsthand experience of public health institutions. ‘You lose your salary, your kids’ education, part of your pension, healthcare for your family – you may have to leave Switzerland or wherever you are. People in these organisations become very dependent on their funding sources.’
Institutional capture. ‘It’s a global health industry now. And I think there’s a danger it’s going to lose its way completely and just become an arm of profit making for large pharmaceutical companies.’
Bell is gloomy about the likelihood of institutions such as the WHO going back to public health basics, caught up as they are in conflicts of interest. For low and middle-income countries (his main area of interest), ‘the only way I can see is for countries at the receiving end who are becoming poorer to start saying, “go away, you’re not helping”, and start setting up their own internal organisations and ways of doing things. I think we’re seeing a kind of colonialism really, and the way to get rid of colonialism is to achieve independence.’
And in western democracies, people need to take their democracies back.
What does the WHO want?
The organisation’s wish list for the pandemic treaty is laid out in this document by the Member States Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies (WGPR) and is the basis for discussion by the leaders of our world.
As you might expect of a corporate document created by multiple parties, it’s full of jargon and tables. In the past, I’ve been paid good money to translate corporate jargon into a form palatable to the general reader. It’s like wrestling with a hydra and moving heavy furniture at the same time. As that’s not the case now and the subject is somewhat disagreeable, you’ll understand if the following summary is brief and partial, even a little terse. (2)
The WHO are keen on having more staff and more offices around the world, presumably so they can keep a closer eye on the countries they manage.
They want the capacity (ie staff) to identify outbreaks of potentially dangerous disease faster.
Global surveillance using digital tools.
Greater powers to impose travel restrictions and use of digital applications to enforce them.
Digital vaccine passports. Authentication is ‘an urgent priority’.
Digital contact tracing.
Oh, and they’d like people to stop calling their pronouncements fake.
WHO peeps, I get it. The last thing you want when you’re working on hard on world-saving, profitable measures is folk using your very own jargon against you.
An observation. There’s a lot on digital here. There’s almost no mention of orthodox public health measures aimed at improving immunity, general population health or access to basic healthcare.
A question. Isn’t faster response and increased surveillance a good thing?
According to Bell, it will lead to far more frequently declared pandemics: ‘You will start to have more and more surveillance, viruses will pop up - “oh, this could be a pandemic, we will lockdown ten countries, stop all air travel, impoverish a whole heap of people, and vaccinate lots of people, just in case.” We may have a pandemic every two or three years, every time a slightly different variant of flu comes up.’
Such a scenario would be, he argues, an inevitable consequence of a global pandemic industry with corporate bodies funded by governments, companies and other organisations employing up to 10,000 people. ‘They need a reason for existence. It’s untenable to have tens of thousands of people sitting around for the next twenty five years … They’ll have to create work for themselves, it’s just human.’
As I write, I’m getting a foretaste of what rapid response might look like. A few days ago, talk of ‘monkeypox’, a disease which is not new and has killed no one to date, started appearing in the media. Two days ago, the WHO called an emergency meeting to discuss it. Today, the Belgium government imposed a 21-day quarantine on those who test positive.
Who is the WHO?
I'm working on the basis of a simple idea here: if someone is asking for lots of power and money to do a new kind of thing that will affect me, I want to know a bit about who they are and their behaviour to date. In other words, I want to form an impression of their character.
When assessing character, one of the main things I look for is consistency; for me, it’s a key marker of trustworthiness. Will the other party turn up if we arrange to meet? Can they keep a confidence? In personal affairs, there’s some leeway: we all know that unreliable person with whom, somehow, we manage to maintain a relationship. But where institutions entrusted with providing the information and rules by which we live our lives are concerned, consistency and its sibling trustworthiness has a much wider reach. Greater power means that it matters more.
This brings me to the biggest red flag about the WHO: their about-turn in early 2020 on the lockdowns proposed by the Chinese Communist Party. They went from dismissing them as 'unprecedented' to recommending them widely in a month, reversing, as has been widely pointed their own pandemic guidance and jettisoning a century of experience in dealing with infectious disease. Two and a half years on, I still haven't heard any account of why this happened which makes sense (almost no politicians or mainstream journalists seem to have even enquired). But from the sequence of events, it's clear that Something Happened between the WHO and China.
Since then, the only consistent thing I've noticed about the WHO is ongoing inconsistency: lockdowns aren't the best solution; no, another lockdown may be needed.
Ordinarily, a pattern of inconsistency suggests a lack of knowledge and/or confusion. When an individual veers from one view to another on something important, you might reasonably conclude they don’t know their stuff and are covering it up with bullshit and bluster. Or maybe there are other actors pulling the person in different directions such as a partner or a parent (perhaps you’ve met them and found them to be needy, domineering or manipulative).
Where power and money are at play and expertise is involved, this second scenario is more likely. At an institutional level, being subject to pressure by parties with differing needs or values is recognised as conflicts of interest. When it’s proven that a conflict of interest has led an organisation badly astray through, say, an extensive investigation involving documents and witness accounts, we call corruption.
But when assessing trustworthiness we don’t need proof of this kind. The behaviour speaks for itself.
I may be explaining the obvious here. What I'm really trying to do is suggest why growing numbers of ordinary people without access to special information or engaging in conspiracy thinking are justifiably suspicious about the motives and connections behind the WHO's pandemic treaty.
The fact that WHO is very far from being a faceless bureaucracy gives us some public record evidence to go on. The pre-WHO career of Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom is littered with allegations of human rights abuses and cover-ups. Bill Gates heads the organisation that has been a major donor for a decade, is now the second-largest contributor of the WHO’s funding.
Detailed research into the background of the WHO's main players is beyond the scope of this piece and the mental health of its writer. But what I have heard about Ted and Bill, who is currently promoting a really horrible book that I'm not going to read, makes me want to go straight back into avoidance. (3) Basically, Gates is trying to apply the approaches used in Microsoft HQ to public health and all our lives.
Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that the WHO concentrates even its own power in the hands of very few individuals: the Director-General and six regional directors. They already have extensive powers to declare a public health emergency and a pandemic, the definition of which is loose.
A wise activist picks her issues, so let's move on.
It’s time for action.
What to do?
Assume responsibility, says Kaia. Recognise that the leaders and institutions are no wiser than us and move on without self-recrimination: ‘all that is needed is to assume self-responsibility as a moral agent from this moment forward.’
Let politicians know what you think about the treaty, says Bell: ‘I think the way it’s going to stop is that if people in countries make it absolutely clear to their governments that it can’t go forward.
‘If those governments say, “this makes no sense. Our taxpayers have made it clear that they don’t want to concentrate their dwindling wealth within the hands of large corporations in order to mitigate something which historically and rationally is a very low risk when they have much more pressing concerns, then it won’t happen.’
They're meeting now, these would-be parent-leaders.
So it’s time to act.
But even if the treaty goes ahead in its most controlling form, there will still be time: time for governments to decide against enforcement, time for people to decide in favour of mass non-compliance, time for civil unrest, time for revolution, social fragmentation – whatever form the myriad, unpredictable consequences take.
But do we really want to bequeath this to future generations?
Their future is in our hands.
Words and tips for action
Panda has a letter of objection focusing on the fundamental principles of public health and stresses the risk posed to health, human rights and national sovereignty by the treaty. It has a useful list of links to key documents at the end.
Together has sent members suggestions for requests to make of UK politicians. I’ll share the first three:
1. Full debate in both Houses of Parliament on IHR amendments and WHO Pandemic Preparedness Strategy
2. Independent Review that assesses the treaty, proposed amendments and implications – for we now know that from the modelling chosen to the experts consulted, what constitutes a threat varies greatly depending on how evaluated and assumptions used
3. A Select Committee to provide full scrutiny
I’ll share my own formula in case it’s useful. It’s based on the understanding that politicians are extremely busy people who don’t have much time for reading my carefully-crafted words (and are likely use staff and interns to triage their inboxes). I’m also thinking my own words carry more weight. What politicians do understand is political discontent.
- Jot down a few notes of what you want to say.
- Choose the points that matter to you most and will communicate best to your reader. (Personally, I think it’s time to remind politicians about my rights as a citizen and their accountability to me as a taxpayer power and as a voter. Public spending, poverty and health outcomes are key words.)
- Remember that you don’t have to cover everything and write a few sentences.
Now engage in some post-activism self care. Go for a walk, sing a song, dance a dance. It’s what we’re here for, after all.
Come back to your activism another day. Are there any other organisations – aid agencies, for example, or charities concerned with health or poverty that could do with becoming treaty-aware?
1. Dr David Bell has written a summary of what’s being discussed this week that includes amendments to the International Health Regulations.
2. Critical Sway has also done a summary of WRPR on Twitter.
3. His computer stuff made me sick.