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There is a strong reason for WHO to be headquartered in India

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Some crises often present countries an opportunity to showcase their strengths and potential to the world. With right credentials, context and diplomatic capital on her side, India should reposition itself as a new global leader in health, and push for a shift of the WHO Headquarter from Geneva to India.
-Ram Krishna Sinha

India, in terms of medical heritage, has been blessed with glorious achievements not only in medicine and surgery but also in development of codes on medical ethics since ages. The Ayurveda’s contribution in palliation, preventing illness and longevity by focusing on management of diet and lifestyles to avert disease, is well known and well documented. The ancient tradition of Yoga, now known as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, is an enduring and popular practice across the world.

India is hailed as “Pharmacy to the world”. Indian pharma companies have helped increase availability, accessibility and most importantly affordability of medicines across the world. The life-saving role played by Indian pharmaceutical firms particularly in poorer countries of Africa is one of the global success stories of our time. Further, it is not only anti-retroviral drugs that Indian generics companies supply at a fraction of the cost charged by western Big Pharma companies ,they are also the major supplier of anti-malaria and tuberculosis drugs in many parts of the world.. Needless to add, these cost much less than drugs supplied by US and European drug majors.

India is fast emerging as the most favored destination for medical tourism. Advantages of medical treatment in India include reduced costs, quality of care, range of services, ease of travel and availability of latest medical technologies. A world class health infra and tele-medicine services in the states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Mumbai are big pull factor. Easing of visa norms for medical reasons had earlier witnessed arrivals of people from Gulf countries. Of late, citizens of Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Maldives, Republic of Korea, Nigeria and other parts of Africa are also availing medical visas in great numbers.

Despite India’s diversity of languages, English is an official language and is widely spoken by most people, and almost universally by medical professionals. The foreigners, as such, face little language barrier in India. This helps medical tourism companies to attract foreigners, especially patients from African, Arabic, Russian and Bangla-speaking countries.

India’s geographical location is equally suitable for the purpose. A nation inhabited by one sixth of the world population and well connected through land, air and sea, is already one of the epicenters of global growth and stability and hence a global destination. Indeed, India is a front-runner in major global initiatives, be it SDGs or Action on Climate Change. It is thus a beacon of hope for the people across the world in general and Africa, Middle East and people from less developed economies, in particular.

Most importantly, India’s prudent and empathetic leadership role in battling COVID-19, evidenced through timely interventions, optimizing medical resources and expertise, enlisting people’s participation, has been laudable in the present testing time. Its inclination in helping the world battle the pandemic has also been well recognized and appreciated.

During the pandemic, be it the supply of necessary medicines and medical aids to over 100 countries, protecting the lives of people stranded abroad or handholding South Asian neighbors, India has shown its noble intent, initiative and capability. And now, carrying out the world’s largest Covid vaccination program for its countrymen, and, side by side, supplying the vaccines to the different parts of the world, India is living the credo of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. All this has immensely enhanced further India’s diplomatic capital and her image as a benevolent, caring and peace-loving nation.

Last but not the least, India’s multi-party democratic credentials contribute to healthcare by bringing social failures into public scrutiny. Democratic participation and public communication lift veil of secrecy in bureaucracy and help develop trust in public health data reporting. In recent times, we have seen how absence of democracy, public reasoning and communication in a country can wreak havoc with public health systems across the world.

This is, however, not to sidestep or underestimate India’s huge unmet health demands, be it the basic health services and addressing issues of hygiene, sanitation, malnutrition or preventive health care. The task of creating health awareness, controlling pathogens, ensuring basic nutrition and vaccination for the poor is really daunting.  A big step, however, to address the challenge has been launched by the government through its flagship scheme Ayushmaan Bharat, and, lately, through an unprecedented hike in health outlay in the recent Budget. Yet, WHO’s base here may help ignite a renewed sense of mission and urgency in health for the government not only in India but that of its South Asian neighbors as well, and help them significantly upgrade their health infrastructure to international health benchmarks.

The recent spat between US and China on the role of WHO and its alleged bias or partisan attitude towards China over reported suppression of vital medical data on the outbreak of the pandemic may make the case for relocation amenable to the US and the West. As it is, the changed global order, which will witness further rebalancing after the pandemic, and also with India taking up the mantle of the WHO’s Board may make the suggestion for relocation more contextual, appropriate and opportune.

The scope of many reforms we desperately need in UNSC and Bretton-Woods Institutions should now be enlarged to include relocation of the headquarters of the UN agencies to different, more deserving, parts of the world, instead of their locational concentration, as constellation, in the US and West. And, such relocations should start with WHO, one of its specialized agencies. All the historical, medical, economic, cultural, geographical, political and geo-political aspects make India an eminently eligible candidate for the relocation.

Some crises often present countries an opportunity to showcase their strengths and potential to the world. This is a time when India should reposition herself as a global health service provider, and having the head quarter of WHO stationed on her land.

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The writer is a former bank executive, lives in Mumbai, and writes extensively on contemporary issues of national importance. He is also an Opinion Columnist for the CEOWORLD Magazine. He may be reached at [email protected]

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