During the worst pandemic in decades, President Donald Trump has officially withdrawn the United States from the World Health Organization (WHO). The United Nations confirmed that the formal withdrawal notice from Washington had been received on July 6th, 2020 with the decision effective on July 6th, 2021. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative of the Union, described the decision with regret, highlighting that it comes at a time when “their efforts are needed more than ever.” Given the U.S. is the WHO’s biggest donor, the U.S.’ withdrawal from the organization will impact many states who are large beneficiaries of the WHO’s efforts.
Trump’s tirade against WHO has been no secret but it is nonetheless surprising that he has finally carried out his threat of withdrawing from the organization. WHO has been at the brunt of his criticism over the rampant spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). His sharpest criticisms claim that the organization ignored and failed to alert the world when the virus escalated in China in December 2019. According to Trump, this failure has much to do with WHO’s connections and reliance on China. He has accused WHO of holding favourable biases to China and even claimed that the organization assisted China’s alleged efforts to hide the real figures and fatalities involved in their COVID-19 outbreak. In short, he claims that the World Health Organization is under China’s control and has lost its independence and objectivity.
While most of these claims have since been refuted, the Trump administration has remained adamant about terminating the U.S.’ relationship with the WHO. Speaking on the CBS News, a White House official explained this persistence. The Trump administration decided to withdraw its membership from the World Health Organization because it refused to implement a list of reforms that the White House had deemed necessary to put in place. This follows Trump’s previous warnings in May 2019 that if “major substantive improvements” were not attempted, he would cut all U.S funding to the WHO. As we are witnessing now, Trump’s threats were not empty and they are now coming into fruition. This loss is a painful multimillion-dollar blow to one of the UN’s largest agencies.
Two days after the U.S.’ formal withdrawal from WHO, former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced on Twitter: “On my first day as President, I will re-join the WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage.” Many officials in Washington have sided with Biden and voiced their disagreement with the decision, republicans notwithstanding. Quoted by the CNN, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander criticized the decision stating, “Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made in connection with coronavirus, but the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it.” The Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, Eliot Engel, claimed this as the president’s attempt to deflect the blame from himself in failing to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country. USA Today cited Senator Engel saying that “The president needs to get serious about stopping this pandemic’s lethal spread by restoring our membership in the WHO, ramping up testing, and encouraging everyone to practise social distancing and wear masks.” Until this week, the president had never worn a face mask and has openly countered public health advice to combat COVID-19.
COVID-19 is a pandemic that has changed the lives of billions of people around the globe, but it is not the first nor last to do so. Our society has suffered through several diseases such as smallpox which was successfully fought against under the guidance from the WHO. Before the WHO, there was no international organization to study and provide reliable guidance on new diseases. Withdrawing from an organization that is dedicated to monitoring, studying, and combating diseases is a mistake. The U.S. decision to withdraw from WHO is not as inconsequential as leaving a board meeting. Walking out on the organization is shutting the door on the innovations and discussions that are needed to improve wider public health and well-being. Trump has declared that the funds intended for the WHO will now be distributed elsewhere, but what other causes could be more deserving of funds than the project to find a vaccine for COVID-19? The U.S. abandonment of the WHO is a blow to our hope and only further isolates Americans in the pandemic.
Trump’s decision, like many of his others, appears to serve as a loud message. The withdrawal from the WHO was an exaggeration beyond what was needed. Instead of halting funding for the WHO, why not simply reduce the country’s annual donations? After all, disagreements do not always need to end in a severing of ties. An investigation into the operations of WHO or a reorganization of the management could have very well been a feasible solution to the White House’s concerns. The U.S. ultimatum for reform and decision to withdraw has been far too drastic. This is not the first UN agency to be culled at Trump’s discretion; in 2018, he withdrew the U.S. from the UN Human Rights Council and the U.S. involvement in the Paris Climate Agreement. If the U.S.’ continues at this rate, it could soon be isolated from the UN entirely.
What is most terrifying, is that this move could impact the U.S.’ ability to combat and recover from COVID-19. Being crippled by the U.S.’ withdrawal, the WHO will lack the finance to strengthen defence and produce progress. The citizens of the America could be breathing through a face mask for longer than it needs to – a product of its own making. Nature is outwitting humans, genes are being mutated, and diseases are proliferating; this is not a mission for one country alone. The U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, was quoted by the NBC News declaring that “We are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world.” The U.S. has withdrawn from WHO, the criticisms have been delivered, all that is left is for Americans to wait and hope for reconciliation.