Newsletter goes bi-weekly; Q&A: Dr Thomas Hale

Newsletter Edition #19


Hope you have had a great start to this decisive year.

As announced last week, here we are with our bi-weekly newsletter. Going forward, on Tuesdays you will receive our curated edition with news, events and other relevant information that capture key developments in Geneva - those having implications for global health. Every Friday, you will receive our original, deeply reported story.

We hope you like this streamlined version of Geneva Health Files meant to provide greater value to our readers. Our offering will continue to evolve in the coming weeks. Occasionally, we will also bring you interviews - as we do this week. Do read our interview with Dr Thomas Hale from the Blavatnik School of Government, who has been working on the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker.

In addition, if some of you want to write for us, we would be happy, and honored, to consider your contributions to feature in our newsletters. Our readers will appreciate listening directly from the experts in the field and our contributors can access this unique community.

Also, do drop in a line to us, if you want us to flag events you think we must consider sharing with our readers.



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Dr Thomas Hale, Associate Professor in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, at the University of Oxford, has been working on analyzing policy responses of governments to the current pandemic. Along with his colleagues, he is a part of the team behind the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. The OxCGRT, as it is called, tracks and compares policy responses around the world. The tracker “provides a systematic cross-national, cross-temporal measure to understand how government responses have evolved over the full period of the disease’s spread. (Read the recent paper on the Variation in government responses to COVID-19.)

Dr Hale’s research has centered around examining transnational problems including in the environmental, economic and health spheres. We were keen to know from him, whether lessons from the pandemic can be applied to the climate crises, going forward. We are grateful for his insights including on the governance of global health.

Image credit: Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Q1 [GHF]: The governance of global health is being remade in the context of this pandemic, with a lot of private actors shaping the response to COVID-19. Some suggest that this amounts to the marginalization of World Health Organization. What is your reading on how global health governance will evolve as a result?

[TH]: The pandemic has put both the need for robust global health governance, and the limitations of the current system, into stark relief. This unprecedented salience could offer the possibility of building support for more robust global health systems. But this outcome will not just happen automatically, even if it may seem obvious. Building stronger, better resourced institutions requires governments and others to invest the time and energy needed to make that happen. I have been disappointed we have not seen much effort in this direction so far. Instead, the dominant themes have been conflict and competition, ranging from bidding wars over medical supplies to geopolitical riffs hampering mutually beneficial cooperation.

If that trend continues, we could, tragically, exit the pandemic with a weaker global health system, not a stronger one.

This would be disastrous outcome, and governments need to act to make sure that does not happen. The change of administration in the United States dramatically improves the prospects for a better outcome, but it is by no means automatic or guaranteed. A lot of hard work will be needed.

Q2. [GHF]: Are there lessons from elsewhere, including from the sphere of environmental governance, that can inform global health? Especially in the context of getting sovereign countries to abide by, for example, international health regulations for sharing information on disease outbreaks, or resisting harsh trade and travel measures. 

[TH]: International institutions are most effective when they help states achieve goals they could not achieve by acting alone—such as controlling infectious diseases.

In this context, rules are important for defining agreed patterns of behavior, but stronger rules do not necessarily lead to greater cooperation. If a government decides it has a core interest in break international rules, it will often do so.

Within these constraints, international rules and institutions are often most effective when they shape what policymakers know and even influence how they think about their goals. For example, in health, as in environment, the role international organizations play in assembling, validating, and promulgating scientific and technical knowledge fundamentally shapes what countries do. It is through such knowledge that countries come to understand a problem and figure out how to address it.

This form of influence, though indirect, is likely far more powerful than most rules international institutions lay down.

Q3. [GHF]: Do you think that the pandemic has had or will have any impact on our response to the climate crisis? 

[TH]: Again, a crisis can be an opportunity, but it takes work to realize that potential. I would hope that publics and decision-makers take some lessons from the pandemic that will serve us well in the climate crisis. For example, that scientific knowledge should guide decisions. That acting early is better than acting late. That people can rapidly change behavior to contribute to the larger good.  That we can use massive public spending to achieve social goals.

A darker view would be that many governments have struggled to act sufficiently even in the face of this immediate crisis, so how can we expect them to perform vis-à-vis a more drawn out one?  Given these possibilities, I think the only practical way forward is to try to draw on those bright spots that are emerging and scale them up.

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  • WHO this week:

A number of informal consultations including Informal consultation on strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response (organized by EU); Informal consultation on the zero draft disability resolution (organized by Israel); Informal consultation on promoting mental health preparedness and response (organized by Thailand); Informal consultation on Resolution on the 'Strengthening Local Production of Medicines and Other Health Technologies to Improve Access’ (organized by Ethiopia) among others.


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