By Philip A. Salem, M.D.
This day commemorates the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although not a binding document, this trailblazing Declaration established an international standard of human rights and committed the UN to defend the sanctity and dignity of all people. It is a shame that this document has not been modified or updated since its inception. It would be a bigger shame if, after our brutal and painful experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, we do not take the opportunity to change the Declaration so that it makes the right to health the most important and sacred human right.
I would hope that the pandemic has taught people worldwide something that they should have realized a long time ago: health is our most precious possession. The right to live and survive depends on the right to health, but this right requires the right to healthcare. Healthy people take health for granted. This is why health and healthcare have not been a priority for most governments, including the US government. Only when people get sick, particularly when they become critically ill, do they recognize the importance of health.
There is a saying that “health is a crown on the head of the healthy that only the sick can see.” During this year of COVID-19, people all over the world have suddenly felt threatened by a deadly virus, and they have feared losing their lives if infected. Consequently, I believe that now is the most opportune time to modify the Charter of the UN Declaration of Human Rights so that it establishes the preeminent significance of the right to healthcare.
COVID-19 has shaken the world and the human mind. Traditional convictions have radically changed. For the first time in history, all people have reason to agree on the value of health and the need for access to good healthcare. A person must first survive to be capable of exercising the other human rights delineated in the Declaration. Consequently, I call on the United Nations to appoint a committee to update this document.
The most important duty of any government is to protect its citizens from diseases and other threats to their health and safety. There should be no human right that supersedes the right to life. When nations and governments are judged based on their performance and adherence to human rights, healthcare should be the first major issue to be examined. Governments that do not respect the right of their citizens to life do not respect those citizens.
We have also learned from the pandemic what a pivotal role the World Health Organization (WHO) can play. The chief obligation of this branch of the UN is to prevent disease and protect people against pandemics, and the tragedy of COVID-19 is that it was preventable. The WHO failed to prevent or slow the spread of COVID-19. It is because of its failure that mankind is suffering through this nightmare. In its current state, the WHO is dysfunctional. The WHO should have recognized the ability of the virus to be transmitted from person to person at least two months earlier.
The infection should have been contained within the boundaries of Wuhan, China. China was not transparent. COVID-19 cases were first diagnosed in China in November and December 2019, but China did not officially recognize the first case until January 7, 2020- and it wasn’t until January 22 that the WHO mission to China issued a statement recognizing the evidence of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan. The WHO did not declare the COVID-19 outbreak as a Health Emergency of International Concern until January 30. Perhaps worst of all, it took the WHO 39 more days to recognize on March 11 that COVID-19 could be characterized as a pandemic. By that time, hundreds of thousands of Chinese had traveled to every corner of the planet carrying the virus.
The disaster we are witnessing now was not fate. Both China and the WHO should be held accountable for their failures to protect the world’s people. More than 65 million have been infected, more than 1.6 million have already died, and the whole world is in the grip of fear. It is mind-boggling to imagine that this whole catastrophe could have been avoided.
I also hope we have learned from the pandemic that Man is one, and Earth is one. The two major threats to civilization, climate change, and pandemics do not distinguish between one person and another. They do not distinguish between rich and poor, or white and black, and they do not recognize national boundaries. Consequently, there is an acute need to not only reform the WHO but also to make major revisions in the UN. The UN’s current achievements are weak and inadequate. This organization should be strengthened and radically changed.
The UN is a body of representatives from member countries, but those representatives are usually bureaucratic and not innovative. The UN should introduce a new mechanism that allows talented, experienced, and innovative people to make decisions regarding the big threats and issues facing the world. Government representation is certainly needed, but those representatives need leadership. The world needs great minds. It needs responsible people who act with knowledge, discipline, and efficacy. Bureaucracy does not serve the world.
We have also learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that science and research are the main weapons for conquering diseases that threaten human life and civilizations. The eventual conquest of this pandemic will occur after we develop an effective treatment for this disease and, more importantly, a vaccine. Thanks to scientists and researchers, vaccines will become available for distribution this month, only 10 months after the pandemic was recognized. This is a historical achievement and a monument to the value of cooperation among those in academia, the pharmaceutical industry, and government. The new mRNA technology used by Moderna, Inc. and Pfizer/BioN Tech in developing their vaccines has provided a new opportunity to make not only more vaccines but also new drugs for the treatment of other diseases.
Improvements in the treatment of COVID-19 and the momentous development of the vaccines should remind us of the acute need for more financial, governmental, and societal support for research. Unfortunately, the federal budget for science and research in the United States has been significantly reduced in recent years. This trend needs to be reversed. Also, philanthropists should be encouraged to donate more money to support scientific research. The future of mankind is dependent on science, not politics.
In conclusion, the enormous tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic was largely preventable. China and the WHO didn’t act fast enough. The responsibility of combating diseases and pandemics lies with scientists, so politicians should support scientists, not vice-versa. The COVID-19 pandemic was a calamity, but it also created a great opportunity to learn from our failures. I am always surprised by how little people learn from failure.
*Philip A. Salem is a cancer physician and researcher in Houston. He has served on a healthcare ad hoc advisory committee that reported to President George H. W. Bush.