A former prime minister of New Zealand whose leadership was defined by stability and thoroughness has been appointed to investigate if the World Health Organization failed to adequately warn of the coronavirus pandemic.
In global circles, Helen Clark became known as a “fighter” and has described the WHO investigation as “exceptionally challenging” and a “very tough gig”, given the review would be conducted in the midst of a pandemic. Speaking to the Guardian from her home in Auckland, Clark said she had to start immediately – “before another pandemic is upon us”.
“The brief we’ve been given is, what do we need to stop the world being blindsided again by a crisis like this?” Clark said.
“As you well know [the pandemic] has gone beyond being a mere health crisis to being a full-blown health, economic and social crisis. And it will leave my country, like most others, with deficits which six months ago would have been thought of as inconceivable. So we have to do better.”
Clark sat down with WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Geneva in mid-February. She says he felt “helpless” to stop the pandemic.
“I think when we replay the record, most of the world sort of sat by and watched with almost a sense of detachment and bemusement. China was locking down Wuhan and Beijing and thinking back to January and early February it was kind of like that’s happening over there,” Clark says.
“Dr Tedros said to me, ‘There is a very narrow window to avoid a pandemic – but it’s closing fast’. And he said ‘I don’t know what else I can do – I am screaming every day but no one is listening’. That really chills me … this is the health nuclear accident.”
A leader of the Labour party, Clark had three terms in office, and was prime minister from 1999 to 2008.
She will be co-chairing the investigation with former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who helped her country escape an Ebola health crisis.
“They came to me and Ellen as we’re seen as independent-minded, we don’t speak for anyone but ourselves, we’re seen as fair operators. Someone’s gotta do it, and I am a strong believer in the multilateral system being effective and working.”
A mentor to a young Jacinda Ardern, the current prime minister of New Zealand, Clark quit New Zealand politics in 2009 to lead the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and since then has held a succession of high-profile roles at global organisations.
I am told ... it will be at least two-and-a-half years until there could be a widely available vaccine – at least. That’s not very encouraging really.
During her seven years at the UNDP, she proved herself to be a ruthless administrator who cut budgets in her area.
In 2016, Clark threw her hat in the ring to become UN secretary general, telling the Guardian it was time a woman was elected to be the world’s top diplomat.She said at the time: “The position of secretary general is about giving a voice to 7 billion people who look to the UN for hope and support.”
The independent investigation into the WHO was called for by the World Health Assembly in May, and backed by the US, Australia and European Union, amid allegations it failed to adequately warn the global community of coronavirus and went softly on China.
The WHO disputed the claims, saying its warnings since January went mostly unheeded.
The US – a major WHO donor – has initiated plans to leave the organisation within the year, but Clark believes it will return if Donald Trump fails in his re-election bid in November. “I certainly would anticipate that if there’s a change of administration in the US, the World Health Organization will see the US back,” she said. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has said the US would rejoin the WHO if he wins office.
Clark’s investigation would look at the effectiveness of WHO work, and how to reform the international institutional response to a pandemic. She and colleagues had already been discussing whether the WHO needed more powers, or the introduction of a “convention on pandemics”.
“I think what is very clear to me is that to fight a global pandemic you need global co-operation, you need strong international organisations, you need the WHO to be the best it can be,” Clark said on Friday.
“Should countries which sign up to that convention accept that the WHO needs more powerful mechanism than it has at the moment? At the moment it can basically only call on countries to be co-operative.”
Clark said an urgent funding boost for the IMF and World Bank was needed, with “huge demand” from more than 100 countries worst-hit by the virus for bailouts, rescue packages and debt waivers.
“Otherwise we face the prospect of cascading economic collapses and all the issues that come with that,” Clark said. “Which is why the security council should have declared this a global threat to peace and security, as it did with Ebola.”
She would also scrutinise how various countries responded to WHO’s warnings because there was “a very wide range of ways”.
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Clark has been back in New Zealand for most of the pandemic and says it has been personally and professionally tough. For seven weeks she was unable to see her 98-year-old father, and now conducts most of her work in the middle of the night – a reality for some time to come.
“This isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I am told by informed sources in Geneva that it will be at least two-and-a-half years until there could be a widely available vaccine – at least. That’s not very encouraging really.”
“I’ve made it clear in accepting it that it will be virtual for the foreseeable future – which could be quite a long time.”
The investigation is expected to report its initials findings in November.