India should push for relocating WHO headquarters to New Delhi

This is a time when India should fashion itself as a new global health hub and provide global leadership in health. Pushing a new agenda for the WHO’s relocation from Geneva to India would make immense sense, writes Ram Krishna Sinha for South Asia Monitor

Ram Krishna Sinha May 28, 2020
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The scope of many reforms we need in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and Bretton-Woods Institutions (World Bank and the International Monetary Fund IMF) should now be enlarged to include relocation of the headquarters of the UN agencies to different, more deserving, parts of the world, instead of their locational concentration, as constellation, in the US and the west.

This relocation should start with one of the very specialized UN agencies, that is the World Health Organization (WHO), presently very much in the news for good, and also for not so good reasons.

There is, arguably, a very strong case for the WHO headquarters to be shifted to India. The reasons, which make India an eminently eligible candidate for the purpose, are varied-historical, medical, economic, cultural, geographical, political and geo-political.

India, in terms of medical heritage, has been blessed with glorious achievements not only in medicine and surgery but also in development of codes on medical ethics since the days of Caraka (one of the pioneers of ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of herb-based medicines) and Susruta (circa 600 BC). Susruta was a famous physician of ancient India and the main author of Sushruta Samhita, which is historically very significant as it dealt with chapters on surgical training and instruments, gynecology and obstetrics, etc. Ayurveda’s contribution in palliation, preventing illness and longevity by focusing on management of diet and lifestyles to avert disease, is well known and well documented. Further, its code embodies the criteria for a good teacher and who should study medicine. It also offers counsel on behaviour with patients and their relatives. This ancient code is reflected in the codes set up by Buddhism and Jainism too. Not to forget, the ancient tradition of yoga, now known as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, is an enduring and popular practice across the world.

'Pharmacy of the world'

India is hailed as ‘pharmacy to the world.’ Indian pharma companies have helped increase availability, accessibility and most importantly affordability of medicines across the world. The life-saving role played by Indian pharmaceutical firms particularly in poorer countries of Africa is one of the global success stories of our time. Further, it is not only anti-retroviral drugs that Indian generics companies supply at a fraction of the cost charged by western big pharma companies, they are also the major supplier of anti-malaria and tuberculosis drugs in many parts of the world. Needless to add, these cost much less than drugs supplied by US and European drug majors.

India is fast emerging as the most favored destination for medical tourism. Advantages of medical treatment in India include reduced costs, quality of care, range of services, and ease of travel and availability of latest medical technologies. Easing of visa norms for medical reasons had earlier witnessed arrivals of people from Gulf countries and lately, citizens of Bangladesh, Afghanistan, the Maldives, Republic of Korea and Nigeria and other parts of Africa are also availing medical visas in great numbers.

Despite India's diversity of languages, English is an official language and is widely spoken by most people and almost universally by medical professionals. As a large number of doctors are trained in western countries, including the US and UK, and the health personnel are English-speaking, the foreigners face little language barrier in India. In some important cities, some hospitals have hired language translators to make patients from Balkan and African countries feel more comfortable while at the same time helping in the facilitation of their treatment. A host of medical tourism companies are also facilitating foreigners, especially patients from Arabic, Russian and Bangla-speaking countries. The WHO will be served well in this conducive cultural ecosystem.

Many states in India like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and Mumbai have world-class modern diagnostic facilities and offer telemedicine services. Kerala, here, deserves special mention. With its legacy of public health and community-driven best practices, the state has played a sterling role in management of public healthcare. Its robust healthcare system can be considered at par with those of many developed countries. Kerala’s achievement in controlling nipah virus earlier in 2018-19 and in the recent COVID-19, through thoughtful interventions and rigorous surveillance network, has been enviable.

India’s geographical location is equally suitable for the purpose. A nation inhabited by one-sixth of the world population and well connected through land, air and sea, is already one of the epicenters of global growth and stability and hence a global destination. Indeed, India is a front-runner in major global initiatives, be it SDGs or Action on Climate Change. It is thus a beacon of hope for the people across the world in general and Africa, Middle East and people from less developed economies, in particular.

India’s prudent and empathetic leadership role in battling COVID-19, evidenced through timely interventions, optimizing medical resources and expertise, enlisting people’s participation, has been laudable in the present testing time. Its inclination in helping the world battle the pandemic has also been well recognized and appreciated. Be it the supply of necessary medicines to over 100 countries to protecting the lives of people stranded abroad to handholding South Asian neighbours, India is driven by the credo of humanity and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family). All this has lately enhanced India’s image as a benevolent, caring and peace-loving nation.

This is, however, not to ignore or underestimate India’s huge unmet health demands, be it the basic health services and addressing issues of hygiene, sanitation, malnutrition or preventive health care. Though an attempt to address the mammoth challenge has been made by the government through its flagship scheme, Ayushman Bharat, the task of creating health awareness, controlling pathogens, ensuring basic nutrition and vaccination for the poor is really daunting.

Case for relocation

However, the WHO’s base here may help ignite a renewed sense of mission and urgency in health for the government not only in India but that of its South Asian neighbors as well, and help them significantly upgrade their health infrastructure to international health benchmarks. India’s multi-party democratic credentials contribute to healthcare by bringing social failures into public scrutiny. Democratic participation and public communication lift the veil of secrecy in bureaucracy and help develop trust in public health data reporting. In recent times, we have seen how absence of democracy, public reasoning and communication in one country can wreak havoc with public health systems across the world.

The recent spat between the US and China on the role of the WHO and its alleged bias or partisan attitude towards China over reported suppression of vital medical data on the outbreak of the pandemic may make our case for relocation amenable to the US and the West.

As it is, the changed global order, which will witness further rebalancing after the pandemic, and also with India taking up the mantle of the WHO’s Executive Board (India's Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, has taken charge as the chairman of the 34-member WHO Executive Board at its 147th session) may make the suggestion for relocation more contextual, appropriate and opportune.

Some crises often present countries an opportunity to showcase their strengths and potential to the world. This is a time when India should fashion itself as a new global health hub and provide global leadership in health. Pushing a new agenda for the WHO’s relocation from Geneva to India would make immense sense.

(The author is a former bank executive and writes on contemporary issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at rkrishnasinha@hotmail.com)

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