Guest Editorial: Trump’s threat to WHO is dangerous and callous

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Last month, President Donald Trump followed through on a threat to temporarily cut U.S. funding to the World Health Organization.

Then last week, Trump threatened to permanently cut U.S. funding to the WHO unless the agency commits to “substantive improvements” in the next 30 days. He is also threatening to review U.S. membership in the United Nations agency responsible for international public health.

“I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America’s interests,” he wrote.

The United States is the WHO’s biggest donor, providing about $450 million a year.

The president’s threats could undercut global health.

Health experts point out that Trump’s increasing attacks on the World Health Organization for its handling of the coronavirus demonstrate a misunderstanding of the U.N. agency’s role and could ultimately serve to weaken global health.

In a letter to the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Trump writes that the agency has “repeated missteps” in its response to the pandemic that have proven “very costly for the world.”

Devi Sridhar, a professor of global health at the University of Edinburgh, said the letter was likely written for Trump’s political base and meant to deflect blame for the virus’ devastating impact in the U.S., which has the most infections and coronavirus deaths in the world.

“China and the U.S. are fighting it out like divorced parents while (the) WHO is the child caught in the middle, trying not to pick sides,” she said.

“President Trump doesn’t understand what the WHO can and cannot do,” she said, explaining that it sets international standards and is driven by its member countries. “If he thinks they need more power, then member states should agree and delegate it more.”

The European Union expressed support for WHO, urging all countries to support it in the wake of Trump’s continued attacks.

“This is the time for solidarity,” said European Commission spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson. “It is not the time for finger pointing or undermining multilateral cooperation.”

Michael Head, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, said much of Trump’s demand was beyond the WHO’s intended scope.

“The WHO have limited powers, in terms of what they can demand of countries where outbreaks are taking place,” Head said. “They provide expert guidance and not enforcement by law.”

Head notes that there are clear gaps in governance elsewhere that have allowed COVID-19 to spread — notably in the U.S., which has seen 1.5 million infections and over 90,000 deaths linked to COVID-19.
Trump’s letter cited “credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal.”

On Tuesday, Lancet editor Dr. Richard Horton tweeted that the reference was inaccurate, noting it published the first reports of the disease only in January.

“The allegations leveled against (the) WHO in President Trump’s letter are serious and damaging to efforts to strengthen international cooperation to control this pandemic,” the journal said.

Trump’s threat to permanently withdraw funding from the WHO follows a pattern of attacks on world organizations that began long before the coronavirus outbreak. The president has questioned the value of the U.S. funding sent to the United Nations, has withdrawn from global climate agreements and lambasted the World Trade Organization — claiming all were ripping off the U.S.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has criticized China and global institutions for problems plaguing the U.S., and the coronavirus pandemic is the latest of his attacks.

Trump continued threats to the World Health Organization, especially during a worldwide pandemic, could endanger global health.

(Reprinted from the Philadelphia Tribune)

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