Intended for healthcare professionals


Russia’s status as WHO member under threat after World Health Assembly vote

BMJ 2022; 377 doi: (Published 31 May 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;377:o1371
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. Montreal

Russia’s role in the World Health Organization was under threat from two directions following two defeats at the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva. A motion drafted by Ukraine condemning Russian attacks on health infrastructure passed easily, while a Russian and Syrian counter motion that sought to share the blame was soundly rejected.

The WHA resolution, which passed by 88 votes to 12 with 53 abstentions, “condemns in the strongest terms Russian Federation military aggression against Ukraine, including attacks on healthcare facilities” and demands that Russia “immediately cease any attacks on hospitals.”1

The resolution appeared to raise the possibility of stripping away some WHO membership and voting rights, noting a 10 May resolution of WHO’s Regional Committee for Europe which called on the organisation to “consider temporarily suspending all regional meetings in the Russian Federation.”

Another threat to Russia’s WHO membership comes from Moscow itself, where the State Duma is re-evaluating the country’s membership of both WHO and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) following a request from the foreign ministry.

Duma speaker Pyotr Tolstoy, a great-great-grandson of the famous author, said that Russia should revise agreements that “do not benefit, but directly harm” the country. “Russia withdrew from the Council of Europe, the next step is to withdraw from the WTO and WHO, which have neglected all obligations in relation to our country,” said Tolstoy.

At the WHA, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN Alexander Alimov called the successful resolution “politicised, one sided, and biased” compared with Russia’s “constructive” proposal. “Manipulating WHO is not acceptable,” he said.

The Russian counter resolution closely mirrored much of the Ukrainian resolution’s language, but with all references to Russian guilt removed.2 It was rejected by 66 votes to 15, with 70 abstentions.

WHO’s latest report on the war on 26 May reported 252 “attacks on health,” including 21 in the previous week.3 But the WHA resolution also raised the matter of third countries suffering from hunger because of Russia’s Black Sea blockade.

“War is a health matter,” Britain’s UN representative Simon Manley told the WHA before the vote. “Health for peace. Peace for health. The WHA must not be afraid to tackle health crises, including the cause and, in this case, the aggressor.”

Just one country, South Africa, has ever seen its WHO voting rights suspended, after it legally formalised its apartheid system in 1964. The rights were only restored in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was president.

Russia appoints Ukrainian anti-vaccine campaigner to regional government

A prominent anti-vaccine blogger and campaigner, Kirill Stremousov, was this weekend appointed by the city of Kherson’s Russian occupiers as deputy head of its collaborating civil-military administration.

The appointment underlines the close ties between Moscow and many Ukrainian anti-vaccine activists. At a “freedom rally” in Kyiv last November to protest covid-19 public health measures, several speakers argued for friendship with Russia. Olena Faist, who heads the STOP Fake Pandemic group in Cherkasy, publicly thanked Russia for funding the movement, and many protesters carried printed placards with a QR code that, when scanned, led to a website of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

Ukraine’s most famous anti-vaccine activist, Ostap Stakhiv, was arrested last November and faces charges of “actions aimed at forcible change or overthrow of the constitutional order or the seizure of state power.” Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, claims to have evidence that he was financed by Moscow. Russia has frequently been linked to the spread of vaccine misinformation in other countries, even before the pandemic.4

Crimean hospitals closed to civilian patients, claims Ukraine

The general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said on 29 May that hospitals in Russian held Crimea have been told to stop accepting civilian patients, to make room for military casualties from the battle in the Donbass. Ukraine’s parliamentary commissioner for human rights, Liudmyla Denisova, said that the peninsula is currently amid a massive employer based blood donation campaign, in which civilians are effectively forced to donate blood out of fear for their jobs.