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Opinion Why the WHO deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

The World Health Organization logo at the United Nations in Geneva. (Laurent Gillieron/AP)

Mark Leon Goldberg is editor of UN Dispatch and host of the Global Dispatches podcast.

On Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee will announce the 2020 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, the Nobel Committee has the opportunity to bolster international efforts to combat the covid-19 pandemic by conferring the honor on the World Health Organization — and in so doing, push back against the Trump administration’s dangerous moves to undermine a vital multilateral agency.

In recent years, arguments in support of multilateralism have resonated with the committee. Over 20 percent of the Nobel Peace Prizes awarded in the 21st century have gone to the United Nations and its entities. This includes the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2013; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007; the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005, and, in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, to the United Nations itself “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”

Each of these awards was conferred during a moment of great global stress, often exacerbated by an obstreperous U.S. president.

The administration’s campaign against the WHO has been swift and severe. In May, the Trump administration announced its intent to withhold funding from the WHO. Weeks later, the administration said the United States would fully withdraw from the world body by the middle of next year. Now, the Trump administration is even prohibiting most U.S. government officials from routine contact with the WHO.

The ostensible justification for this diplomatic onslaught is accusations that the WHO responded poorly to the pandemic. Targeting of the WHO also happens to serve Trump’s domestic political agenda and shift blame for his own terrible handling of pandemic in the United States. Whatever the reason, the WHO suddenly lost its single largest funder and most important political backer in the midst of an unprecedented global health emergency.

Still, the WHO has been able to mount a global response to the pandemic that is succeeding in two key ways that are particularly salient to the considerations of the Nobel Committee.

First, the WHO is successfully holding the line against covid-19 from spreading through the world’s most vulnerable populations. This is a major victory against the disease, though perhaps one that is underappreciated in Western countries where the disease is running rampant.

As the pandemic ravaged Europe and the United States this spring, epidemiological modeling predicted it would spread like a wildfire to poorer countries in sub-Saharan Africa and through vulnerable populations such as refugee camps, completely overwhelming weak health systems. The WHO responded by mobilizing support for countries with limited capacity. This included prepositioning equipment such as PPE and ventilators, and holding training sessions for health workers in several languages. The WHO also deployed personnel to potential hot spots to work with governments to design covid-19 mitigation plans.

The Central African Republic is a good example of how this strategy is paying off. The country ranks at or near the bottom of every major global development indicator — yet it is not being overwhelmed by covid-19. This is in large part due to the work of Marie-Roseline Bélizaire. She is a Haitian WHO epidemiologist who was fighting an Ebola outbreak in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo when WHO headquarters in Geneva sent her to the Central African Republic in early March. She described for me how, by working with government officials and the U.N. Peacekeeping mission in the country, she set up a system of contact tracing, set up a laboratory to handle testing and designed a system of supported isolation for people who test positive.

It is routine epidemiology, but done in one of the most challenging environments in the world — and it’s working in the Central African Republic and countries like it.

Just days before Trump would announce a freeze on U.S. funding for the WHO in May, an epidemiological model from the Yale School of Medicine predicted that by June 30, as many as 16.3 million people in Africa could contract covid-19. But this scenario has not unfolded. As of Tuesday, the number of covid-19 cases was about 1.2 million and under 25,000 deaths. The WHO’s early decision to focus its pandemic response on places with weak health systems has saved countless lives.

The WHO is also at the center of a global cooperative effort to distribute a covid-19 vaccine worldwide. In April, the WHO, in partnership with a number of global health organizations, launched the “Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator” to catalyze the development and distribution of tests, treatments and, crucially, vaccines for covid-19. It is through this accelerator that a complex platform for the international cooperation around the development and manufacture of a covid-19 vaccine was swiftly created.

The Covax Facility, as it is known, makes early investments in promising vaccine candidates and in the vast infrastructure needed to make that vaccine as widely available as possible. These investments are backed by pledges of participating countries to purchase doses for their population. (Two of the most promising vaccine candidates currently in late stage trials — the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine and the Moderna vaccine — received early support through Covax.)

As part of its campaign against the WHO, the Trump administration declared that the United States would not participate in the Covax Facility. This did not deter the WHO from successfully soliciting the participation of most of the rest of the world in this collective effort. As of Sept. 21, 156 economies, representing nearly two-thirds of the global population, are committed to or eligible to receive vaccines through Covax. When a vaccine is available, most of humanity will get it through efforts backed by the WHO. This is what will ultimately end the pandemic.

Conferring the Nobel Peace Prize on the WHO would be interpreted in the United States as a political act — and it will be. The WHO is simultaneously playing offense against covid-19 and defense from domestic political forces in the United States that seek to scapegoat the WHO for Trump’s handling of the crisis. Awarding the WHO the Nobel Peace Prize would provide the organization a much-needed morale boost while affirming the fundamental premise that a global pandemic can be confronted only through global solidarity.

Read more:

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: Everyone will be affected by the U.S.'s withdrawal from the WHO

John Pomfret: Taiwan must participate in the WHO. Global health is too important to play politics.

David Ignatius: How did covid-19 begin? Its initial origin story is shaky.

Carl Bildt: The post-American world is now on full display