Last month, Donald Trump shocked world leaders and health experts after announcing his intention to cut American funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). Speaking before reporters at a White House press briefing on April 14th, Trump accused the WHO of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” Trump also claimed that “the WHO [had] shown a dangerous bias towards the Chinese government,” and “had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground…the outbreak could have been contained at its source, with very little death.” Since these comments were made, Trump has continued to criticize the organization, calling the WHO on Monday May 18th “a puppet of China.” That same day, Trump sent WHO Chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus a letter claiming the United States would permanently withhold funds from the organization unless “major substantive improvements [are made] in the next 30 days.”
The Trump administration’s condemnation of the WHO has drawn outrage from medical experts, who fear such policies could have serious repercussions during the current health crisis. Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who has personally committed over $250 million to fight COVID-19, has regarded the prospect of defunding the WHO during a pandemic as being “as dangerous as it sounds.” Gates further commented that WHO’s “work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs the WHO now more than ever.” In addition, Dr. Amesh Adalja, who is an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Center For Health Security, praised the WHO’s ability to determine which countries around the world are most susceptible to the virus. As nations begin to consider reopening their borders, this piece of information is key in ensuring that this process is done in a manner which does not place the global population at any additional risk. International organizations have also stepped forward and criticized Trump, including the European Union, whose foreign policy chief Josep Borrell commented that the American suspension of funds to the WHO is “deeply” regrettable. Likewise, African Union Head Moussa Faki Mahamat stated that world leaders have a “collective responsibility” to aid the WHO during the pandemic.
Since reporting multiple pneumonia cases “of unknown cause” in Wuhan, China on January 5th, the WHO have been a leading figure in the global response to COVID-19. Within weeks after issuing their initial warnings, the organization declared a “public health emergency of international concern,” and Dr. Tedros met with world leaders and on the ground health experts in countries struggling to contain the outbreak. Over the past several months, the WHO has provided virtual COVID-19 training courses, available in 13 different languages, and have shipped critical medical resources including millions of diagnostic test kits and PPE to 133 countries around the world. Despite these applaudable efforts, the WHO are nevertheless responsible for reporting conflicting and inaccurate information during the earliest stages of the outbreak. This was exhibited on January 14th when the WHO claimed to have “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus,” based upon “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities.”
Today, it is well regarded that human-to-human contact is responsible for COVID-19 being able to spread so easily in densely populated communities. While this reporting was certainly regrettable, it is most unfortunate that Trump has sought to politicize this mishap, having accused the WHO of intentionally withholding the truth from the public. Ultimately, the WHO were misled by President Xi and other Chinese officials, who themselves are guilty of lying to the international community, having sought to cover up the earliest coronavirus cases in Wuhan. It is also highly hypocritical of Trump to filter these allegations, while he personally praised China’s handling of COVID-19 in a January 24 tweet, stating that “the United States greatly appreciates [President Xi’s] efforts and transparency.”
Permanently defunding the WHO would have disastrous and unavoidable effects on global health for generations. With the United States providing the WHO with 15% of its annual budget, a complete withdrawal of American support would cripple the organization’s ability to manage health crises and provide people in need with vital medical supplies. Doing this amidst a pandemic would be especially consequential, as countries whose health systems are already overrun as a result of long term regional conflicts stand little chance of independently defending their civilians from the coronavirus. It is urgent that American lawmakers recognize the hazards that this proposed policy brings to the entire world, and demand that President Trump immediately reverse course and reopen funds to the WHO.