The clash between President Donald Trump and the World Health Organization (WHO) reached a climax on July 6th, when the administration began the formal withdrawal from the international body. (The complete process is estimated to end in a year’s time.) President Trump has been accusing the WHO of favouring China and wasting “American taxpayers’ money” with ineffective policies since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has undermined the credibility of the organization not just in the US, but also abroad, as many begin to question its leadership during this health crisis.
One of the first responses to the announcement came from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who will probably face Trump himself in the upcoming November election. Biden vowed to reverse the decision to withdraw from the WHO “on (his) first day” if elected. Robert Menendez, the top party official on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed his disgust. The day after the announcement was made, Menendez tweeted, “This won’t protect American lives or interests – it leaves Americans sick & America alone.”
The heads of the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, and American College of Physicians have also joined forces to condemn the White House.
Trump’s skeptical approach to international bodies like the WHO is nothing new. He had already suggested withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during his 2016 presidential campaign, again citing the large monetary contributions coming from “American taxpayers.” Though the United States ultimately did not leave NATO, the organization’s credibility and legitimacy were undermined. Similarly, the White House’s comments regarding China’s influence on the WHO have created fertile ground for the conspiracy theories and doubt which have characterized Trump’s presidency.
Nonetheless, the US leaving the world’s leading health agency may have dire consequences for the rest of the world. Despite China committing more funding and resources to the WHO since the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. has been the body’s largest donor, and has pioneered important advancements for the health and scientific communities worldwide. Its withdrawal might eventually lead to partnerships and initiatives being damaged, though it will be the American people who will lose the most in the long run.
Assuming the withdrawal process goes through next year, the WHO will definitely feel the negative impacts of this. But this doesn’t have to matter as much for the rest of the world. Since the start of the Trump administration, the U.S. has practiced self-isolation and aggressive nationalism. Political leaders in Europe have been seeking greater autonomy from the White House in response, and China has had the opportunity to step up its support for the WHO and influence on the international scene. As many had already predicted, the U.S. can no longer (and, I’d argue, should never have tried to) act as leader of the ‘Free World.’
However, the possibility of a Chinese ‘global leadership’ shouldn’t be the takeaway. Rather, we should hope to learn from the current pandemic how we can better work together to prevent this from happening again. America’s withdrawal can create space for change and democracy – if structures are positively adjusted to the new dynamics.
Important developments to fight COVID-19 are taking place in scientific communities on every continent. The WHO needs to make progressive changes if it is to lead and coordinate future outbreaks, and the U.S.’ withdrawal might be a much-needed starting point for reform.
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