Andrew Harmer By: Andrew Harmer
Senior Lecturer Global Health
View profile and Diary

12 Apr 2020 : David Fidler's article on WHO

I'm not a big fan of David Fidler's global health writing. Sometimes I wonder why. He was quite prolific a few years ago; less so nowadays. But given that he's well-known, has written a lot and most people I know think he's great, self-doubt creeps in from time to time. So sometimes, when he writes something new, I give his work another go, just to make sure.

He's just written a piece for [] and, inevitably, I found myself reading it. I'm not going to critique the entire article, just the first paragraph. Because that's really all you need to read.

Here's the first sentence: "From the start, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been at the center of the COVID-19 storm—and the target of criticism". This sounds like something sifgnificant, but it isn't. 1. There was no start; 2. there is no center; 3. or a storm; 4. anyone and everyone with any degree of influence will always be the target of criticism. The sentence is, in other words, entirely fabricated. Furthermore, the article could start with any number of alternative fabrications. For example, why not say this instead: "From the start, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been leading the international COVID-19 response with consistent public health advice and guidance - and received widespread support from its member states". Why not say that? Both are equally 'true'. Fidler, like all of us, has a perspective, is selective in his choice of facts, data and information, is biased, has an ideological perspective, interests and concerns. Crucially, however, this opening sentence has nothing to do with being an expert. It is simply an observation and, as such, as valid as anyone's.

Let's look at sentence two: "The pandemic and the controversies associated with it have created an immediate crisis for WHO as COVID-19 rages on". You see, it never even occured to me that WHO was facing "an immediate crisis". I've been writing and teaching about the politics of global and international health for years, and I've been following this pandemic reasonably closely. So I know about the challenges - internal and external - that WHO has been struggling with, and continues to struggle with. But all I can see is the incredible work it does with almost no resources; and all I can see is an amazing leader at its helm who - and this is such a rare quality in high politics - has humility and compassion. Someone who actually appears to give a fuck about the majority of the Organisation's member states who are all-but invisible in the writings of Western, white, liberal analysis. So again, I invite you to think about how you might re-write Fidler's second sentence. How about like this instead: "The pandemic and the controversies associated with it have created an opportunity for WHO to demonstrate its leadership and encourage member states to fully support the Organisation's response to the pnademic".

I hope you're beginning to see a theme emerging here, but if not let's try sentence three: "But it's also created a prospective crisis because the outbreak and political reactions to it will shape the future of WHO". Unless Fidler is psychic, there is no basis for him to divine a "prospective crisis". Furthermore, while the sentence seems to proceed logically, with the first and second clauses supporitng one another, actually the sentence makes no sense. The word "because' suggests cause and effect, but it's just gobbledy-gook. I mean, you can kind of guess what he's trying to say, but - well - maybe he was writing it while, I don't know, taking a shit or something, but the opposite of what he's trying to say could equally be true. The "outbreak and political reactions to it will shape the future of WHO". Yes, OF COURSE THEY WILL. How could they not. But maybe it will be a positive shape and NOT A FUCKING CRISIS! WHO could just as easily come out of all of this smelling of roses. 

Can you see now why I find Filder's writing really irritating? All of his stuff is like this. I remember working at Sussex University years ago. My job for about a month was, literally, to read David Fidler's articles. Just that. I sat down at 9.30 in the morning and until about 5.00 in the evening I just read his articles, and broke down his arguments line by tedious line to see if they made any sense. And they didn't. Not then, not now.

Anyway, I digress. Sentence four, thankfully the penultimate one in this opening paragraph: "The present back-and-forth between WHO’s critics and defenders previews the coming tussle over how to repair global health governance and reform WHO in light of this disaster". Jeezus. Where do you start? 1. There is no back and forth; 2. Who are WHO's critics and defenders? Have you done a poll of its member states? Or are you just constructing this little fantasy of yours from an undisclosed sample based on, who-knows-what? Are you just talking about the U.S? Is this what it's all about? WHO vs the U.S government? 3. Ah, here we go again, a sentence with clauses that have nothing to do with one another. The fabricated 'back-and-forth' previews "the coming tussle" (psychic Dave) over how to repair (because the concept of GHG is something that can be broken???) and reform the WHO, and to end with a lovely bit of theatre "in the light of this disaster". Disaster! Or not a disaster.  

Ok, so as we trudge wearily to the end of this cluster-fuck of an opening paragraph, what does Dave have left for us? Here it comes: "Although the pandemic is not over, the pillory and praise of WHO are worth exploring now so that the coming tsunami of demands for change do not destroy the organization in order to save it". Argh, I give up. Read it for yourself and decide whether you think it makes any sense. He refers to a tsunami, so I'm guessing probably not. 

© 2020, All rights reserved. Views expressed are those of individual contributors. Privacy Policy