A civil society guide to the 73rd World Health Assembly #WHA73

Due to Covid-19, this year’s (first session of the) 73rd World Health Assembly was a very special one and took place virtually, using video conference technology. We might be back with a “WHA Today” guide for a resumed session later in the year. 

Latest updates (*see below for details):

20 May 2020: The Covid World Health Assembly: A People’s Assessment*
20 May 2020: Selected media coverage of the WHA*
20 May 2020: WHO DG: Closing remarks in final session on 19 May
20 May 2020: US explanation of their position regarding the “COVID-19 Response” Resolution

19 May 2020: “No-show”: Taiwan issue as proposed supplementary agenda item*
19 May 2020: New reports and assessments of the state of the Covid-19 resolution*
19 May 2020: Our WHA highlight: 
Address to 73rd World Health Assembly by Honourable Mia Mottley
19 May 2020: …and a letter by Mr Trump
19 May 2020: WHA Journal 2 (schedule and reports)

Final version; no further updates.
Hope you liked it. See you again in better times!
Author: Thomas Schwarz, MMI Network

World Health Assembly: Basics

WHA documentation

WHA webcast and public relations

“De minimis” session

The World Health Assembly will start on 18 May at 12 hrs CEST and will end on 19 May at the latest. There are currently three sessions planned, 12-15 hrs, 16-19.30 hrs and 21-24 hrs. Resolutions which have been successfully negotiated (consensus) can be adopted.

The “abridged provisional agenda” of the World Health Assembly includes only four agenda items:

1. Opening of the Health Assembly
3. Address by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General
4. Invited speaker(s)
6. Executive Board: election

The provisional abridged agenda is annotated as follows:

“In the context of the restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), and through a written silence procedure, the Executive Board has approved the arrangements for a virtual World Health Assembly to be held, using video conferencing technology. This de minimis session will only consider an abridged version of the provisional agenda.

During the opening of the Health Assembly, Member States will be invited to also consider the adoption of special procedures, the verification of credentials and the adoption of a written silence procedure.

The Committees of the Health Assembly will not convene.

Under the item ‘Closure of the Health Assembly’, Member States will be invited to consider suspending the Health Assembly until it can meet in a resumed session later in 2020.”

The WHA documentation is now introduced as follows (updated on 12 May): “The May 2020 session of the Health Assembly will be a virtual de minimis meeting, with the intention to defer consideration of most items of the Health Assembly to written procedure or a resumed meeting later in the year. In light of this and given the ongoing resource requirements related to the COVID-19 pandemic, some documents that are not required for items to be considered at the virtual de minimis meeting in May 2020 will be published at a later date. This will only take place when the work of the Assembly would not be adversely impacted. We believe this represents a prudent use of resources and reflects the current priorities of the Organization.”

Agenda items NOT to be dealt with on 18/19 May

  • Full provisional agenda: Document A73/1
  • Consolidated report by the Director-General: Document A73/4
  • Consolidated report by the Director-General: Document A73/5
  • Document A73/33 Special procedures
  • Document A73/34 Closure of the Health Assembly, Suspension of the session
  • Document A73/35 Closure of the Health Assembly, Written silence procedure

If we take the “abridged provisional agenda” (A73/1 Add.1) as binding reference for the session on 18/19 May, all the WHA documents published in the section “Documents related to Provisional agenda WHA73/1″ will be considered only in the resumed session of WHA73 at the end of the year or via “written silence procedure” (see A73/35).

For some of these agenda items, two “consolidated reports by the Director-General” were published on 12 May, together with the new introduction to the WHA documentation. The “consolidated report” A73/4 covers items 11.1, 11.2, 11.3, 11.4, 11.5, 11.7, 11.9, 13.3, 13.4, 15.2, 15.3, 18.1, 18.3, 18.4, 18.6 and 18.8 of the provisional (full) agenda (see document A73/1), and the “consolidated report” A73/5 covers provisional agenda items 11.2, 11.6 and 15.1.

At the end of both documents, under the title “Action by the Health Assembly”, the WHA is not only “invited to note” these reports, but also to adopt resolutions or decisions on these agenda items as recommended by the Executive Board. This is valid for the following WHA agenda items: 

  • 11.1 Primary health care
  • 11.2 Follow-up to the high-level meetings of the United Nations General Assembly on health-related issues
  • 11.3 Global vaccine action plan
  • 11.4 Accelerating the elimination of cervical cancer as a global public health problem
  • 11.5 Ending tuberculosis
  • 11.6 Epilepsy
  • 11.7 Integrated, people-centred eye care, including preventable blindness and impaired vision
  • 11.9 Global strategy and plan of action on public health, innovation and intellectual property
  • 13.3 Influenza preparedness
  • 13.4 Cholera prevention and control
  • 15.1 Decade of Healthy Ageing
  • 15.2 Maternal, infant and young child nutrition
  • 15.3 Accelerating efforts on food safety
  • 18.1 Programme budget 2020–2021
  • 18.3 Geneva buildings renovation strategy
  • 18.4 WHO reform
  • 18.6 Data and innovation: draft global strategy on digital health
  • 18.8 Report of the International Civil Service Commission

In two cases only, the WHA is invited to “discuss the way forward” (document A73/4 related to agenda item 11.1, Primary Health Care: “consider the draft operational framework on strengthening primary health care and discuss the way forward”) or to provide guidance (document A73/5 related to agenda item 11.6, Epilepsy: “provide guidance on the next steps to advance global action on the burden of epilepsy and other neurological diseases”).

A World Health Assembly dominated by Covid-19

There is no formal WHA agenda item on Covid-19, but all attention and the entire World Health Assembly will focus on it.

There was a long debate whether a World Health Assembly makes sense at all as all Ministries of Health are busy with Covid-19. Yet there seemed to be given strong voices in particular from some foreign ministries saying that a WHA could bring an important signal for the relevance of WHO in these difficult times.

An EU sponsored resolution on Covid-19 was negotiated behind the closed doors of a “Member States process” and will probably approved by the WHA, on Tuesday 19 May, by consensus, but with some countries (USA, others?) dissassociating themselves from some statements.

Drafts of the resolution

Reports and assessments

David Pilling and Demetri Sevastopulo: “According to several people familiar with the situation, the US was planning to disassociate itself from part of the resolution, but talks are continuing. Although the US will make its objections clear, the resolution is expected to pass. The White House declined to comment on the negotiations.”

Priti Patnaik: “Depending on who you talk to, or what you read, the COVID19 resolution is being described as positive or weak. But it appears, most experts who work on issues of access to medicines are of the view that the text of the resolution as it stands now, is weak. By noon today, May 14th, the silence procedure ended (the “silence period” was extended last night illustrating the difficulty in reaching consensus). It is unclear whether negotiations will continue, although the silence period is over. If the text is not up for consultation again, it will come up for formal adoption at the assembly next week.”

Elaine Ruth Fletcher: “The world seems set to make at least a symbolic display of unity in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic  at the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA), which begins on Monday. The WHO’s 194 member states are expected to overwhelmingly approve a European Union-led resolution that aims to step up the global COVID-19 response, and ensure equitable access to treatments and future vaccines. Along with EU member states, the resolution, published Friday on the WHO website, is supported by an impressive list of 28 other countries worldwide.”

The Taiwan issue (no-show)

And yes, the heat was on befor the opening of the WHA. Not only since the attacks by the US president and administration on the WHO’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic that triggered a lot of support for the WHO.

We were worried to see a World Health Assembly dominated and distorted by the polarity (new Cold War?) between the US and China, with the Taiwan issue and the demand for an independent investigation into the origin of the Coronavirus as proxy battlefields, and little space and commitment for dealing with the burning issues of how to overcome the pandemic.

  • The WHA documentation included  proposal for supplementary agenda item on ““Inviting Taiwan to participate in the World Health Assembly as an observer” (A73/1 Add.2 ). 
  • See also the draft resolution published as “Background on proposed supplementary agenda item
  • In his report (A73/1 Add.2), the WHO DG stated: “In accordance with Rule 12 of the Rules of Procedure of the World Health Assembly, this proposal for a supplementary agenda item is submitted to the General Committee for its consideration. Supplementary documentation accompanying this proposal will be distributed if a corresponding agenda item is added by the Health Assembly.” This still leaves open if there will be a lengthy Taiwan debate at the beginning of WHA (if the item is added by the General Committee) or not.


…and then: no-show. As a result of “intensive consultation with the interested parties”, the President of the World Health Assembly stated, when introducing the WHA agenda, that the resolution requesting to invite Taiwan as an observer to the WHA would be dealt with only in the resumed session later in the year. So the agenda was adopted without an the additional item initially requested.

If you like it or now: This is a lesson in smart diplomacy.

Selected coverage

20 May

19 May

18 May

Attending the World Health Assembly:
Registration and civil society statements

Non-State actors in official relations with WHO (including civil society organizations) have the “exceptional possibility” to “post written statements, under provisional agenda item 3 Address by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, which will be devoted to the Covid-19 pandemic response in advance of the opening of the Health Assembly.” This implies that oral civil society statements will not be allowed.

NSA in official relations are also requested to “register delegates” to “receive the log in details to access the virtual meeting”. This contradicts with our expectation that the World Health Assembly will be publicly accessbile, via webcast.

Having asked the WHO secretariat for clarification, they reacted immediately (thank you!) and confirmed that the World Health Assembly will indeed be publicly webcast: “However, the advantage of a formal registration will allow posting of statements on the dedicated  webpage and also have the organization reported as a participant to WHA.”

  • See, as reference, a “cleaned” version of the WHA invitation to NSA, without contact and login details, as received from a G2H2 member: WHA73 NSAs English no details
  • Statements of “non-state actors” (mainly civil society) are published here: nonstateactorsstatements
  • Special procedures: A73/33 

Civil society meetings on Friday, 15 May and Tuesday, 26 May 2020

A World Health Assembly in times of a dual crisis: Covid-19 and the collapse of multilateralism as we have known it

The civil society meeting on 15 May allowed members of the Geneva Global Health Hub and other civil society colleagues to share their views of the World Health Assembly in the current crisis of multilateralism that is accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The discussion were  structured along two (interrelated) thematic fields:

  1. Looking ahead to WHA73: Can the World Health Assembly uphold its status as the most relevant forum to negotiate global public health particularly in a major global health crisis?
  2. Beyond the World Health Assembly: How successfully is WHO defending and shaping its role as the “leading and coordinating global health authority”? Or is the Covid19 pandemic the last straw for this multilateral institution in the middle of a wider crisis of multilateralism?

Our discussions will be continued and deepened at a second civil society meeting, on 26 May, based on civil society assessments of the outcomes of WHA73.

WHA side events

On 18 and 19 May, we recommend to civil society colleagues to focus all your attention on the deliberations and debates of the WHO Member States on the COVID-19 pandemic and response and NOT to hold any “virtual” side events during the working hours of the World Health Assembly. For this reason, we will also not publish a regular issue of our traditional “WHA TODAY” events calendar. 

WHA73: The Palais will be empty for once...

“Our” guide to WHA73

This informal guide to the 73rd World Health Assembly and the 147th session of the WHO Executive Board is provided by the Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2) as a service to its members and partners.

No guide to WHO EB147

The 147th session of the WHO Executive Board will take place on Thursday and will be a short, technical one, without any substantial technical or political debates.

Documentation: here

G2H2 Civil society meeting ahead of WHA73, Friday, 15 May 2020

A World Health Assembly in times of a dual crisis: Covid-19 and the collapse of multilateralism as we have known it

The Covid19 World Health Assembly: A People’s Assessment. Webinar on Thursday 21 May 2020

The World Health Assembly 2020, which was held amidst the challenges posed by the COVID 19 pandemic, concluded on May 19. The two-day virtual Assembly did hear voices of solidarity and support in the fight against the global pandemic, but also saw some geo-political theatrics.  Despite limitations, the  Resolution on COVID 19 Response was unanimously adopted. However a number of concerns remain on issues such as access to medical products, socio-economic impact of lock down measures, strengthening public health systems among others.

The webinar was organized by the People’s Health Movement (PHM), the Tricontinental Institute of Social Research, India, and the Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2). For G2H2 it replaced the initially planned “looking back at the WHA” meeting on 26 May.

Interested in G2H2?

Consider joining us, and help us to build a strong civil society space in Geneva for more democratic global health.

Member and membership: here