Donald Trump announced yesterday the US will suspend funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), accusing the international agency of not doing enough to stop the spread of Covid-19 when it first appeared in China at the end of 2019. The US is the biggest financial contributor to the WHO.
“The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said at a press briefing on April 14, reports Associated Press. Trump told reporters the US would carry out a 60 to 90-day review of the United Nations agency's actions during the early stages of the pandemic before making any decision on resuming aid.
The Trump administration itself has been criticized for its slow response to the pandemic – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its first warnings on January 6, the White House assembled a task force over three weeks later, and testing was still demonstrably low by February 28. When asked about the lag in rolling out testing nationwide, the president has previously declared: "I don't take responsibility at all for it". The Trump administration started issuing its first social-distancing guideline on March 16, over two weeks after the first Covid-19 death was reported.
The president himself does not have the authority to block the funding to international institutions without the approval of the Senate but could find “creative” ways to rescind or divert funds. Dr Alexandra Phelan, assistant professor at the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University detailed possible ways the administration could do just that in a twitter thread, adding: “Whatever form it takes, this is a deeply shortsighted and dangerous decision – at any time, let alone during a #COVID19 pandemic.”
The first case of what is now known as Covid-19 was announced in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of December 2019, and the WHO raised the alert on January 6, before commencing daily teleconferences on January 7 to update national governments and the general public on the spread of the disease.
Trump and his supporters have focused on a tweet by the WHO on January 14 reporting on a preliminary study that suggested that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. On the same day, the WHO continued to ask people to cover their mouths when sneezing and coughing as this was just a preliminary study. On January 23, the WHO published an official report making clear that human-to-human transmission was indeed occurring and that the novel coronavirus was more deadly and more transmittable than seasonal flu. It declared a global health emergency on January 30.
The US moved to declare it a Public Health Emergency the following day, though within a week the administration was accused of still not taking the situation seriously enough by senators. In February, Trump announced that the coronavirus was “very much under control”, and that it would disappear in April, falsely insisting it was comparable to the seasonal flu.
In February, Trump also commended the WHO for its efforts, and thanked China's President Xi for China's transparency and hard work containing the virus. Now, the US has become the epicenter of the pandemic, with over three times as many cases as the next hardest-hit country at 609,696, it appears the president is trying to re-write history, insisting he knew it was a pandemic before the WHO declared it, and that it is the international agency that needs to answer questions.
Many have asserted that the White House's failure to act was a long time coming. The Trump administration was informed when it took office in January 2017 of the risk of an airborne pandemic. The Nation reported that the Pentagon warned the White House about the shortage of ventilators, face masks, and hospital beds in the event of such a pandemic.
The US contributed nearly $900 million to the WHO for 2018-2019. Its next largest contributor is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who provide nearly 10 percent of its funding.
“Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds,” Gates tweeted earlier today. “Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.”
[H/T: The Guardian/ The Nation/ Science]