Why declaring coronavirus a global health emergency?

China is marked as an epicenter of coronavirus outbreak. Following its outbreak, it has been spread to many territories within and outside of mainland China, as well as to more than 20 countries, spanning Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East.

The latest death toll from the new virus now stands at 309. The coronavirus outbreak has prompted a number of Airlines to cancel flights to China. Of course, this galvanizes action by the global community.


Due to this alarming outbreak, on 30 January 2020, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new coronavirus outbreak as a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ (PHEIC). Such a declaration is typically taken on advice by an Emergency Committee within the WHO.


During the press conference, the WHO’s Director-General hailed the leadership and political commitment of the very highest levels of Chinese government, for their efforts to investigate and contain the current outbreak.


China quickly identified the virus and shared its sequence, so that other countries could diagnose it quickly and protect themselves, which has resulted in the rapid development of diagnostic tools.

Why does WHO take the lead?

Does the World Health Organisation have a central and historic responsibility for management of the global regime for the control of the international spread of disease? Under Articles 21(a) and 22 the Constitution of the WHO confers upon the World Health Assembly the authority to adopt regulations designed to prevent the international spread of disease.

Turning to the prevalent coronavirus, WHO Director-General said: “The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries”. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it.”

Why does the WHO define such an outbreak as a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’? Because it’s an extraordinary event that constitutes a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease, and to potentially require a coordinated international response.

In a similar instance, WHO recently declared the Ebola outbreak in the eastern DRC as a PHEIC. As the virus continues to spread, many countries have begun evacuating their citizens from Hubei province, where the virus originated.

Despite the fact the name PHEIC combines “emergency” and “international,” it doesn’t literally refer to a global emergency. For example, the Ebola outbreak that affected people particularly in the DRC.

But, principally, PHEIC is characterized as a global health concern precisely because it has spread far beyond a particular country’s frontier. The case of coronavirus is a good example as it has been spread to many countries and on different continents. It is indeed a new pandemic virus that is rapidly spreading globally.

A PHEIC declaration is laid down in Article 12 of the International Health Regulation (IHR) and in accordance with Article 21(a) of the Constitution of the WHO. This provision gives the Health Assembly the authority to adopt regulations concerning, among others, sanitary and quarantine requirements and other procedures designed to prevent the international spread of disease.

Furthermore, the International Health Regulation does not require further ratification by states to enter into force, rather only a two-thirds majority vote in the World Health Assembly (Article 60 (a) Constitution of the WHO). Regulations adopted under this procedure become binding for all WHO Member States, with the exception of those which explicitly “opt-out”.

The purpose of the International Health Regulation is to prevent, protect against, control, and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.

A PHEIC declaration implicitly requires the WHO’s Director-General to mobilize the financial resources to support efforts to bring this pandemic virus under control.

In addition, a PHEIC declaration necessitates the WHO to authorize the allocation of resources from its ‘Contingency Fund for Emergencies’ and, in parallel, it triggers the World Bank to allocate funds from the ‘Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility’, created in the aftermath of the 2014-2016 West African Ebola crisis, for the disbursement of additional funding.

Both financing mechanisms were already in place before the PHEIC declaration was issued. But the WHO’s Director-General has the duty to mobilize WHO member states to financially support the global efforts.

Basing on Article 43 of the International Health Regulation, States Parties implementing additional health measures that significantly interfere with international traffic—which affect the entry or departure of international travelers, baggage, cargo, containers, conveyances, goods, and the like, or their delay—are obliged to send to WHO the public health rationale and justification within 48 hours of their implementation.

All countries are expected to be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoVinfection.

This undertaking requires every country to implement a comprehensive risk communication strategy to regularly inform the population on the evolution of the outbreak, the prevention and protection measures for the population, and the response measures taken for its containment.

The writer is a law expert.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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