Donald Trump, the president of the United States, announced from the Rose Garden of the White House on April 14 that he was withholding funding to the World Health Organization, pending a “60 to 90 day” review of its handling of the coronavirus crisis and seeming bias toward China, where the Covid-19 outbreak originated in late December 2019.
The review, Trump said, would assess the agency’s “role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus. Everyone knows what’s going on there.”
He added that the agency has treated the US “very badly,” without explanation, but he has been strongly criticized by major media in the last few days for his inadequate, chaotic response to the pandemic and appears to be retaliating against the UN, one of his favorite international targets.
Trump has repeatedly defended his reaction to the coronavirus crisis by saying he stopped travelers from China into the US and is now blaming the UN agency for its “disastrous decision to oppose travel restrictions from China and other nations.”
On Feb. 29, the WHO repeated an earlier recommendation, saying that it “continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.”
The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said in response to the Trump announcement: “The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most dangerous challenges this world has faced in our lifetime. It is above all a human crisis with severe health and socio-economic consequences.”
The WHO, he added, “with thousands of its staff, is on the front lines, supporting Member States and their societies, especially the most vulnerable among them, with guidance, training, equipment and concrete life-saving services as they fight the virus. It is my belief that the World Health Organization must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19.”
Trump criticized the UN agency in his April 14 announcement for being “China-centric,” noting sarcastically that China was “always right,” referring to the WHO’s response to the country’s management of the Covid-19 outbreak. Trump’s public criticism of the WHO began to unfurl last week, when he first threatened to cut US funding to the agency.
Jeremy Konyndyk, a former head of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at Usaid under the Obama administration and now senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, tweeted about Trump’s targeting of WHO: “What’s going on is an attempt to distract from from the USG’s [US Government] own failings by throwing @WHO under the bus instead.”
Abby Maxman, the president of Oxfam America, said: “Picking a fight with the World Health Organization during a pandemic is shortsighted, to say the least. Instead of bringing us together through this global crisis, President Trump has attacked leaders and agencies around the world, seeking to deflect blame for his own administration’s failings.”
The US provides 22 percent of the agency’s annual budget, China is next at 12 percent. Trump said that the US is paying almost $500 million to the WHO, but the agency’s assessed contributions say the “net contribution” payable for 2020 and 2021 are both $115 million each for the US, although “voluntary” funding from an array of US government departments and agencies also feeds into the WHO. Moreover, it appears that the 2019 assessed contribution was not paid, so withholding funding now may be part of an ongoing process.
“We’re going to take that money and channel to areas that most need it,” Trump said in the Rose Garden.
“We’re doing an investigation — I don’t know the gentleman,” Trump said of the head of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian government minister, with a Ph.D. in community health.
Dr. Tedros, as he is called, was elected as director-general in 2017 and is the first African to head the organization. At the time, the agency was already in danger of losing its leadership role in sectors like emergency response and health metrics.
At the same time, the WHO also was responding to more crises around the world, while shoring up ill-equipped national health systems and retaining its power to convene, inform and persuade disparate cultures of everything from stopping smoking to destigmatizing depression.
The American global health expert Laurie Garrett called the leadership post of the WHO a “hideous job.”
The organization was founded in 1948 as one of the specialized agencies of the UN. At the time, it was considered a milestone in the history of global health efforts. Yet the WHO has never been able to carry out comprehensive health reforms to meet the agency’s overarching goals because it has no norm-setting powers and cannot infringe on national health agendas.
A US State Department official told PassBlue in 2017 that the US “values the WHO’s leadership role in advancing global efforts to detect public health threats early, especially outbreaks of infectious disease with the potential to spread beyond borders and to respond to them rapidly to ensure they are contained at their source.”
As Guterres said, the WHO actively works in war zones, and this week, the UN said that the agency was helping to lead the Syrian government, for example, in preventing and spreading Covid-19 in the country. Twenty-five confirmed cases and two deaths have been recorded so far.
Guterres also recently acknowledged problems of the WHO, saying: “This virus is unprecedented in our lifetime and requires an unprecedented response. Obviously, in such conditions, it is possible that the same facts have had different readings by different entities. Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis.
The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges, as they may arise in the future. But now is not that time.”
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.