The response to Covid was the greatest mistake in the history of the public-health profession, but the officials responsible for it are determined to do even worse. With the support of the Biden administration, the World Health Organization (WHO) is seeking unprecedented powers to impose its policies on the United States and the rest of the world during the next pandemic.

It was bad enough that America and other countries voluntarily followed WHO bureaucrats’ disastrous pandemic advice instead of heeding the scientists who had presciently warned, long before 2020, that lockdowns, school closures, and mandates for masks and vaccines would be futile, destructive, and unethical. It was bad enough that U.S. officials and the corporate media parroted the WHO’s false claims and ludicrous praise of China’s response. But now the WHO wants new authority to make its bureaucrats’ whims mandatory—and to censor those who disagree with their version of “the science.” 

The WHO hopes to begin this power grab in May at its annual assembly in Geneva, where members will vote on proposed changes in international health regulations and a new treaty governing pandemics. Pamela Hamamoto, the State Department official representing the U.S. in negotiations, has already declared that America is committed to signing a pandemic treaty that will “build a stronger global health architecture,” which is precisely what we don’t need. 

If we learned anything from the pandemic, it was the folly of entrusting narrow-minded public-health officials with wide-ranging powers. The countries that fared best, like Sweden, were the ones that ignored the advice of the WHO, and the U.S. states that fared best, like Florida, were the ones that defied the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the Centers for Disease Control. This wasn’t a new lesson. Previous research had shown that giving national leaders new powers to respond to a natural disaster typically leads to more fatalities and economic damage.

This lesson is anathema to politicians and bureaucrats. Instead of analyzing their many mistakes during the pandemic, WHO officials are pretending their performance entitles them to expand their empire. Under the proposed new regulations, which would be “legally binding,” nations would commit themselves during an emergency to “recognize WHO as the guidance and coordinating authority of international public health response.” The agency could issue directives on quarantines, contact tracing, travel restrictions, border closures, and vaccine passports. In the name of “equity,” nations and companies could be required to share intellectual property, to supply the WHO with vaccines and other products, and to provide various “resources”—including funds to pay for the WHO’s expanding bureaucracy.

Nations that sign the pandemic treaty would promise to “cooperate” in “preventing misinformation and disinformation,” which presumably means silencing scientists who disagree with the WHO’s conclusions and edicts. Asking for this takes remarkable chutzpah, given how much misinformation the WHO itself spread during the pandemic. It originally underplayed the threat by repeating China’s false assertion that the virus wasn’t spread by human-to-human transmission. Then it pivoted to terrifying the public by vastly overstating the fatality rate. It praised China’s “transparency” and brutal lockdown. It issued false statements about the airborne transmission of the virus and about natural immunity. It continues recommending masks despite their harmful effects and the evidence that they make little or no difference in stopping viral spread.  

When China hid data from its coronavirus research in Wuhan, investigators from the WHO went along with the cover-up by concluding in 2021 that it was “extremely unlikely” Covid  originated at the laboratory. Since then, the accumulated evidence has made it a near certainty that the virus came from the lab. But the WHO, which promised to do a more rigorous follow-up investigation of the pandemic’s origin, has abandoned that investigation and shows no interest in holding China accountable. 

The WHO, meantime, has kept itself busy by convening committees to draft proposals for new powers in the next pandemic. These efforts have attracted relatively little public attention but have aroused fierce criticism from academics, lawyers, and think tanks. Idaho senator James Risch has introduced a bill that would prohibit the U.S. from entering into any legally binding agreement with the WHO unless it is ratified by the Senate. The proposed changes have also prompted opposition from politicians in Europe and Australia, as well as from a coalition of scientists in Africa, who denounced “the increasingly colonialist approach of those who now control WHO’s agenda.”

WHO officials claim they’re not seeking to mandate pandemic policies in any country, and they cite verbiage in the pandemic treaty promising to respect “national laws” and “sovereignty.” These assurances are disingenuous. The most radical proposals are contained not in the treaty itself but rather in amendments to the WHO’s International Health Regulations. While the WHO doesn’t have a formal means of enforcing these “legally binding” regulations (China flouted them with impunity during the pandemic), its edicts would provide public-health officials in the U.S and other countries with a powerful new weapon for bullying politicians and the public into submission. 

Rather than empowering these officials, we should be disarming them. One reason Sweden avoided lockdowns and fared so much better than the rest of Europe and the U.S. is that its constitution forbade the government from limiting citizens’ movements. In the U.S., we need new legislation and executive orders at the national and local levels that explicitly prevent public-health agencies and political leaders from using emergencies to suspend fundamental liberties and to assert new powers. During the pandemic, U.S. courts eventually struck down several unlawful measures—President Biden’s vaccine mandates for private workers, the CDC’s national eviction moratorium, California’s ban on church services—but these edicts did plenty of damage while they were in effect.  

Until the WHO acknowledges its pandemic blunders and holds China accountable, the U.S. should suspend any further financial contributions to the agency. It certainly shouldn’t enter into any agreement that gives the organization new powers and more money whenever its director declares a “potential public health emergency of international concern.” That would create the sort of perverse incentive that the economist Friedrich Hayek recognized decades before Covid. “‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext,” Hayek wrote in 1979, “on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded—and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed emergency powers to see to it that the emergency will persist.” If the U.S. and other countries endorse the WHO’s power grab at the meeting in May, there will be many more emergencies in our future.

Photo: © Yann Forget / Wikimedia CommonsCC-BY-SA


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