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Post Pandemic Global Health Diplomacy & Health Silk Road; By Vithiyapathy Purushothaman (李拯)

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Image Courtesy: Axios

Article 50/2020

(The following article was  presented as a paper at an international conference on “Post-Pandemic World Order: Navigating New Normal” organized by NIICE Nepal and Water Policy Center on 30 August 2020)

According to the World Health Organization situation report, since the start of COVID-19 outbreak till 2 October 2020, a cumulative total of nearly 34 million cases and 1 million deaths have been reported. As per the present situation, health is being recognized as a major transboundary issue.  It requires a multilateral approach by collectively combating the diseases that cross national borders. By comparing their nations military expenditure and health expenditure, people across the world were claiming to focus on building modern health infrastructure to overcome pandemic like situation in future.

In the 19th century, cholera pandemic had created the basement for the international health cooperation that centered in Europe. It also becomes a reason for International sanitary conference that aimed to address the global health issues. Beyond many other initiatives taken by western countries, the milestone was achieved when the International Office of Public Health (OIHP) and the League of Nations Health Office (LNHO) were created. Notably, LNHO was the first universalistic multilateral organization that focused on global health. Yet, these two organization didn’t achieve the absolute result. However, it created a basement for Global Health Diplomacy (GHD). Later, during post world war II, in 1948, the constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) came into force. It was seen as the outcome of International Health Conference convened in New York where the secretariat comprised UN officials, civil servants of different government and the members of the former LNHO and OIHP. Effectiveness of WHO was seen during the eradication of smallpox in 1976. At the same time, it realized the challenges for adopting the global goals by overcoming national interests. WHO’s Health for all strategy, had further instituted the important political commitments. Further, International Health Regulation were revised to adopt to the multipolar world order. While addressing HIV/AIDS epidemics in 1980s, WHO further formulated multilateral approaches. Subsequently, financial and private institutions participation in health investment were increased. World Bank also reviewed their financing positions for health services in developing countries. In this period, health reforms and health financing were increased globally.

In early 21st century, regional actors began including health issues in their agenda. Many countries have also formulated their national and global health strategies. As a result, the new phase of GHD emerges with multilateralism which influences the dynamics of health diplomacy. In specific, it was focused to bridge the capacity in low and middle-income countries. UN Resolutions emphasized as a core relationship between global health and foreign policy in the 21st century. It highlighted the importance of diplomacy in supporting health. Diplomats defined their double responsibility to represent their nation interest as well as the interest of global community through their effective binding agreements. Therefore, in the changing global health landscape, heath challenges were addressed through multilateral cooperation. Health diplomacy has become the major pillar for foreign policy. Scholars around the world points out the need for modern hospital, hi-tech medical equipment, trained hospital staffs and related education as well as the uninterrupted water and electricity supply to the hospital zones. The development of health infrastructure which was attained by present world is the result of these above stated 160 plus years of GHD development. But it is also necessary to noted that global health infrastructure development is still lagging in many phases to meet the demands to fight health issues. It is required to overcome the shortage of health infrastructure through both political and technical transformation.

China’s Health Silk Road

China has mastered the strategy to fight virus outbreaks. By successfully controlling SARS and MERS in early 21st century, China become an example of how to prepare, detect and respond to potential outbreaks. It mastered the mitigation strategies to slowdown the virus transmission. Hence, it demonstrated the same during COVID-19 outbreak by proving its efficacy in controlling and reducing the disease transmission. China’s strategies to identify the case through large-scale surveillance have played a vital role. Its technology advancement helped in tracking the transformation of disease. Firstly, temperature screening system were placed in all possible public gathering and transport hubs. Secondly, control measures such as tracking systems using smart phone applications, disease surveillance and street camera monitoring system were utilized to prevent the spread of virus. Thirdly, social distancing and wearing mask were made mandatory in public place. Finally, apart from building two new hospitals in less than two weeks, medical centers and quarantine facilities were also built across the country. Significantly, China integrated treatment combining western and its traditional medicine. It also ensured to increase the mask, test kits and medical equipment production to fight COVID-19. Thus, China’s swift response to the public health emergency was achieved by its modern health infrastructure. It helped to track and quarantine the cases with its efficient network and transport infrastructure. Further, it also helped to mobilize medical team wherever it was needed to recover the patients from Coronavirus. With this expertise in dealing the outbreak, China is increasing its ability to provide its service to the countries around the world.

In January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Geneva where he signed Memorandum of Understanding with WHO, committing to the construction of Health Silk Road (HSR) which is aiming to improve public health in countries along China’s BRI. Later, in August, 2017, during the Health Silk Road high level meeting for health cooperation, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed China for strategic partnership to promote modern health care system in BRI countries. Remarkably, in April 2020, when US halted its financing to WHO at the crucial moment of COVID-19, China contributed USD 50 billion to WHO for the global response against pandemic. China supported both members and non-member countries of BRI by providing medical supplies and also sent their medical experts to exhibit its solidarity during the fight against COVID-19. Therefore, new normal in GHD is emerging to help countries develop its modern health infrastructure. HSR of China is expected to be benefiting its cooperating countries in developing its surveillance and early response system, promote technical cooperation to provide diagnostic tools, help developing or providing its tracking software and contact tracing apps. Finally, with the integration of Digital Silk Road it may further extend the cooperation by providing Baidu navigation service along with its 5G technology to improve the digital connectivity. As observed by scholars around the world China’s HSR is focused to develop infrastructure which is a basic necessity for modern health care system. Therefore, in post pandemic era, Health Silk Road is expected to create a new normal in Global Health Diplomacy.  COVID-19 has recalled the realization that the world is one family. If countries employ the collective approach in building, improving and master its modern health infrastructure, world will not witness another pandemic in its history again.

(Mr. Vithiyapathy Purushothaman(李拯), Ph.D. scholar, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), Hefei, China and Associate Member, C3S. The views expressed are personal. )

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