By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand’s former prime minister Helen Clark warned if the world remained “flat-footed” in its response to pandemics it faces future economic, social and political crisis, after she was appointed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead a review of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHO announced late on Thursday that Clark and Liberia’s former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will lead a panel scrutinising the global response.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called both women “strong-minded, independent leaders”, aiming to underscore their freedom in assessing his agency’s and governments’ COVID-19 responses.
The COVID-19 outbreak originated in China in late 2019 and has infected a reported 12.16 million people globally and 550,242 have died, according to a Reuters tally.
The United States has accused China of not being open with the rest of the world in the early stages of the outbreak. Beijing has rejected the charge and has fiercely rejected calls for an inquiry, describing the efforts as U.S.-led propaganda against China.
After accepting the role, Clark said the job could only be described as “exceptionally challenging”.
In an interview with local broadcaster TVNZ on Friday, Clark said this was the sixth time in 17 years that the WHO has declared a public health emergency.
“This is going to happen again. If the world is as flat-footed in response as it has been to this we are in serious ongoing economic, social, political crisis,” Clark told TVNZ.
She said there would be a lot of consultation about appointing panel members.
“But there’s also a very real job to do, which is to look at how the WHO has been able to lead. Does it have the right mechanisms? What actually happened here? And there’s a lot of politics in that,” she said.
She said she will be working from her home in Auckland for the foreseeable future while delivering the project.
New Zealand is among only a handful of countries to virtually eliminate the virus, with no known cases of community transmission in the South Pacific island nation, and the economy back to pre-pandemic normalcy.
Clark has praised New Zealand’s response to the virus.
Clark, New Zealand’s leader from 1999 to 2008, lost out four years ago to Antonio Guterres to lead the United Nations. She previously led the U.N. Development Programme and serves on a WHO panel on childhood obesity.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Michael Perry)