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Trump’s Break-Up With the WHO and the US Push for a Vaccine

President Trump at a coronavirus update briefing
President Trump at a coronavirus update briefing, April 13, 2020. His attack on the WHO could backfire, the author argues, especially if the new pro-WHO coalition develops a vaccine before the US does. D. MYLES CULLEN/WHITE HOUSE

Just how crazy is Donald Trump’s campaign to punish the World Health Organization over its apparent “China-centric” bias in the midst of a deadly pandemic? Let us count the ways. At the top of the list: It may contribute to a big setback for Trump himself.

When the United States president announced on April 14 that he was suspending US funding for the WHO, it looked like a symbolic slap on the wrist and not a heavy blow to the global health infrastructure during a time of urgent need. Funding would merely be suspended for 60 to 90 days while the US investigated the WHO’s early handling of China and the Covid-19 outbreak.

But it now seems pretty clear he plans to make the cutoff permanent. While governments around the world have encouraged him to put off his funding decision until the pandemic has been brought under control and the WHO has had a chance to clean up its act, Trump appears intent on simply walking away for good.

It also seems obvious that in doing so, he may end up unwittingly undermining his own ability to end the Covid-19 crisis. More important to Trump than needless deaths, sadly, is his need for scapegoats as evidence of his own erratic and deceptive handling of the pandemic begins to sink in, even among some of his supporters.

From listening to Trump and his sycophantic band of aides, “Communist China” is his No. 1 scapegoat, with the WHO as the runner-up for allegedly acting as China’s enabler. US officials are exploring the wild idea of seeking billions in financial compensation from China for the deaths and damage to the economy in the US. To better pin the blame, they are investigating the possibility that the virus spread after escaping from a high-security virology lab in Wuhan.

To dramatize his rage at China, Trump and Pompeo have also obstructed pandemic action by the UN Security Council, the Group of 20 and the Group of 7.

From the very beginning, Trump has railed against many of the same multilateral structures the US played so central a role in creating. While insisting Washington remains the leader of the free world, he has simultaneously pursued his so-called America First mission, which is unfortunately less about US needs and aspirations and more about playing to his base and getting re-elected.

In formulating US foreign policy, Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have gone beyond an America First approach, rhetorically pursuing an end to post-World War II multilateralism by weakening international institutions and ignoring Washington’s international obligations. Pompeo has begun piecing together a policy framework that assumes multilateral institutions are simply no longer useful or effective because they have lost their way with age and also undermine important national goals that every country has the right to pursue on its own.

Trump takes that approach a remarkable step further by insisting that most of the rest of the world is quite content to leave world leadership to the US, because of Trump’s brilliance. Who needs the UN if The Donald is in charge?

Fortunately, it has slowly dawned on the rest of the world that the answer is to simply go about their business in cooperation with one another and no longer look to Washington for leadership or even input (like some US governors).

Nowhere has this become more evident than in the international response to Covid-19, critical to advancing vaccines and treatments. And here’s where Trump’s approach may prove self-defeating. Over the past few weeks, most other nations, although not all of them, have chosen to stick with the WHO, rallying behind it by organizing a May 4 worldwide drive to raise an initial 7.5 billion euros — more than $8 billion — to battle the virus, far more than the US contribution that Trump wants to kill.

“We need to bring the world, its leaders and people together . . . because beating coronavirus requires a global response and sustained actions on many fronts,” the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said in an April 24 statement. “We need to develop a vaccine, to produce it and deploy it to every corner of the world. And we need to make it available at affordable prices.”

The campaign’s organizers include the European Union, France, Germany, Britain, Norway, Costa Rica and Saudi Arabia, as well as some of the world’s most important health-related entities, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the Vaccine Alliance GAVI, the health investment organization UNITAID, the World Bank, the medical-research charity  Wellcome Trust and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

From the start, the campaign was pitched as a symbolic show of support for continued WHO leadership and coordination, and organizers made a concerted appeal to Washington to join them in an initial virtual planning meeting on April 24. But the US declined to participate at any level, snubbing, among others, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and the American philanthropist Bill Gates. (To be fair, China, India and Russia were also absent from the virtual meeting.)

“Although the United States was not in attendance at the meeting in question, there should be no doubt about our continuing determination to lead on global health matters, including the current Covid crisis,” a spokesman for the US mission in Geneva told Reuters. “We remain deeply concerned about the WHO’s effectiveness, given that its gross failures helped fuel the current pandemic.”

The April 24 session concluded with a series of goals, including a commitment to unprecedented international partnership and coordination and worldwide access to new treatments, technologies and vaccines.

A safe, affordable vaccine is the gold standard being pursued by scientists, public health officials and governmental leaders around the world, including Trump. But what happens if the members of the pro-WHO coalition end up with the best vaccine in the shortest amount of time, and Washington is cut out of the game?

Trump reportedly tried unsuccessfully in mid-March to lure a German vaccine development initiative to the US with a prize rumored to total a billion dollars. He has also let contracts for the rapid production of vast numbers of vaccine doses to be set aside for Americans, even before a strong candidate has been identified. But what if he can’t get his hands on the candidate he wants because it is controlled by one of the multilateralist dudes over in Europe, who have in mind a slightly different audience for the first billion shots?

Has the possibility not crossed Trump’s mind? To show Washington’s contempt for the WHO’s role in the fight, Pompeo’s State Department issued a “fact sheet” on rival US initiatives against Covid-19 around the world on April 16, two days after suspending the WHO’s funding. The document, over 7,000 words long, fails to mention the WHO even once, even though Washington has been providing it with $400 million to $500 million a year, roughly 15 to 20 percent of its annual budget of about $2.2 billion.

“The U.S. Government is leading the world’s humanitarian and health response to the Covid-19 pandemic even while we battle the virus at home,” the fact sheet claimed. “These resources have saved lives, protected people who are most vulnerable to disease, built health institutions, and promoted the stability of communities and nations.”

A follow-up statement six days later noted that US spending on health, humanitarian and economic assistance “in every region of the world” since the outbreak of Covid-19 had increased to $775 million. “The United States is without peer as a humanitarian force for good,” it boasted. But how can the word of such men as Trump and Pompeo be trusted?

Meanwhile, forget multilateral organizations like the WHO, which has joined Trump’s other budget victims at the UN — the Human Rights Council, the Population Fund, peacekeeping, Unesco and UNRWA, the agency for Palestinian refugees. The president’s budget plan for the coming fiscal year, still before Congress, would make big additional cuts in the foreign aid budget, devastating even the agencies Trump has ignored until now.

The notion of US world leadership under this president is tragically comical. Does Trump’s mission mean there is now no need to pursue such crucial US interests as a safer, stable and more peaceful world? No need to join others in working on a range of big global challenges, including preparing for the next crisis? Given Trump’s demonstrated disdain for many of his country’s oldest, closest friends and allies and his own gross mismanagement of the pandemic at home, don’t count on other countries to look to him for answers.

Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations. He also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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