WHO, Infectious Disease Surveillance and COVID-19


Published: Winter 2021    |    By:  Joy D. Fitzgibbon   |    Volume 69, No.7


WHO has long been considered the central agency responsible for the global surveillance of infectious disease. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals vulnerabilities within their surveillance system. WHO’s strained surveillance capacity following multiple budget cuts and its dependence upon the surveillance capacity and national reporting of its member states calls into question WHO’s ability to monitor the transmission of infectious diseases within states and across borders—a role that is arguably a core part of its identity and mission. This article will explore these dynamics as they are unfolding in the COVID-19 pandemic,
identifying the complex relationships that form the basis of their global surveillance capacity. It will, in particular, discuss WHO’s failure to prevent the global spread of COVID-19 in light of the role played by China’s controversial national public health surveillance actions, the vacuum left by a weakened US Centres for Disease Control under President Trump and the impact of Canada’s curtailed Global Public Health Intelligence Network. The article will conclude with policy recommendations for the WHO and for Canada as we consider our relationship with the WHO and our responsibilities in the governance of global health.

About the Authors

Joy Fitzgibbon received her PhD from the University of Toronto. She currently serves as Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Margaret MacMillan Trinity One Program at Trinity College, is Fellow of College and a Senior Fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History. Joy’s research focuses on solutions to governance dilemmas in global health pandemics and on violence against women in conflict zones. A recipient of a joint Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada/Canada Health Services Research Foundation Grant for her doctoral research on Harvard’s Partners in Health and its policy advocacy at the World Health Organization, she is also the coauthor of Networks of Knowledge (University of Toronto Press) with Janice Stein, Richard Stren and Melissa MacLean. She has served as a governance and policy advisor on the board of Food for the Hungry Canada, lectured as faculty in the International Paediatric Emergency Medicine Elective and in the Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program and submitted policy reports to various government agencies including the then Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament and the Canadian International Development Agency (with Janice Stein).