Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Dr Harsh Vardhan took charge as the Chairman of the Executive Board of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 22 May 2020 at the 147th session of the board. The Indian minister took over the charge from Japan’s Dr Hiroki Nakatani. The Executive Board of WHO consists of 34 members, all of whom are technically qualified and hold the position for three years
  1. Dr Harsh Vardhan as the head of the governing body of the international nodal agency for public health will give India a chance to play a more prominent role in the global public health discourse. 
  2. The Executive Board is tasked with the implementation of the decisions and policies taken by the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO. 
  3. Apart from this, the board is also required to advise and generally facilitate the work of the Health Assembly.
  4. An annual meeting of the Executive Board is organised in January, so that the members can agree upon the agenda for the World Health Assembly and the resolutions that the assembly would take under consideration. 
  5. Once the Assembly is convened, a second meeting of the Board is called in May. This generally shorter meeting is a follow up to the Assembly.
  6. This year, the Health Assembly was convened virtually on May 18 and 19, with the list of its resolutions shortened so that the discussion could be held within two days. Since the Assembly ended on May 19, the Board held a meeting on 22 May 2020 for more administrative matters.
  7. The post of Chairman of the Board is held by rotation by the six regional groups of the WHOAfrica, Americas, South-East Asia, Europe, Eastern Mediterranian and Western Pacific regions – for a period of one year each. 
  8. The report further stated that the bloc had last year taken the unanimous decision of electing India’s nominee to the board for a term lasting three years.
Challenges for Harsh Vardhan as Executive Board Chairman?
  1. The appointment of Dr Vardhan comes at a time when the world is facing a global health crisis
  2. WHO has been spearheading the war against the COVID-19 pandemic at a global scale and the charge of implementation of policies to tackle the virus will be shared by Dr Vardhan now that he has assumed office.
  3. While Dr Vardhan has adequate experience of dealing with the pandemic, considering the fact that he is leading India during its fight against coronavirus, the challenges at a global level could be much different and more severe.
  4. Moreover, the appointment also comes when US President Donald Trump has been targeting the global health agency, accusing it of being biased towards China and not holding the latter responsible for the pandemic, which originated in Wuhan in December last year. 
  5. At such a time, Dr Vardhan would have to ensure that the steps the agency takes are effective, while also re-affirming the credibility and the unbiased functioning of the WHO.
The WHO Executive Board
  1. The WHO is governed by two decision-making bodies — the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board
  2. The agency’s headquarters are located at Geneva in Switzerland.
  3. The Board is composed of 34 members technically qualified in the field of health, with members being elected for three-year terms
  4. The Health Assembly is the WHO’s decision-making body, and consists of 194 Member States.
  5. The Board chairman’s post is held by rotation for one year by each of the WHO’s six regional groups: African Region, Region of the Americas, South-East Asia Region, European Region, Eastern Mediterranean Region, and Western Pacific Region.
  6. At the main Board meeting held in January, the agenda for the forthcoming Health Assembly is agreed upon, and resolutions for forwarding to the Assembly are adopted. 
  7. A second shorter meeting is held in May, immediately after the Health Assembly, for more administrative matters.
  8. The main functions of the Board are to give effect to the decisions and policies of the Health Assembly, to advise it and generally to facilitate its work. 
  9. The Board and the Assembly create a forum for debate on health issues and for addressing concerns raised by Member States.
  10. Both the Board and the Assembly produce three kinds of documentsResolutions and Decisions passed by the two bodies, Official Records as published in WHO Official publications, and Documents that are presented “in session” of the two bodies.
India at the WHO
  1. India became a party to the WHO Constitution on 12 January 1948
  2. The first session of the South East Asia Regional Committee was held on October 4-5, 1948 in the office of the Indian Minister of Health, and was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister.
  3. The first Regional Director for South East Asia was an Indian, Dr Chandra Mani, who served between 1948-1968. 
  4. Currently, the post has again been occupied by an Indian appointee, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, who has been in office since 2014.
  5. Since 2019, Dr Soumya Swaminathan has been the WHO’s Chief Scientist.