Acostomed to crude display of power, President Donald Trump has frozen the United States’ funding of the World Health Organisation amid the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the entire world. His grouse with the agency is that it easily accepted China’s narrative of the health crisis; and by so doing, mismanaged its information, which invariably endangered the lives of Americans.
The withheld $400 million, representing the US donation for 2019, will remain sequestered for 60 to 90 days, pending his administration’s investigation into the WHO’s alleged mishandling of the pandemic and duplicitous action of China in the whole affair. Trump said, “The reality is that the WHO failed to adequately obtain, vet and share information in a timely and transparent manner.”
His broadside, especially against China, is gaining traction. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and French President, Emmanuel Macron, have excoriated China on its conduct, with the former stressing that it had misled the world and demanded more transparency about the origin of the virus. Chinese authorities’ unease about academic research in the pandemic bespeaks concealment, and adds moral weight to the rising clamour for an inquest.
More eyebrows have been raised since the fatality figures in Wuhan were reviewed upwards by 50 per cent. The director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Steve Tsang, said: “With the WHO presenting China’s responses in a positive light, the Chinese government is able to make its propaganda campaign to ignore its earlier mistakes appear credible and to ignore the human, societal and economic costs of its responses.”
While concerns about China’s opacity in the COVID-19 tragedy are gaining global appeal, and the effectiveness of the WHO’s response under searchlight, the seizure of its funding at this critical juncture however, is reckless and unjustifiable. It can only achieve one result: more lives lost to the virus. The White House decision has provoked the ire of health experts globally, and rightly so, who liken the action to “a crime against humanity.” COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, China in November. Over 2.7 million people worldwide have contracted the virus, with more than 191,000 fatalities, of which the US accounts for more than 49,000 of them. It makes the country the worst hit.
In response to Trump’s decision, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guiterres, said, “This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat. When we are divided, the coronavirus exploits the cracks between.” This voice of reason has been echoed by the WHO itself, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose donation is the second highest, among others. Gates said, “The world needs the WHO now more than ever.” Jeremy Konyndyk of the Centre of Global Development says the freeze “leaves the US and the world less safe.” He said Trump’s action was an apparent attempt to shift blame for his administration’s own failings.
Trump responded cynically to multiple intelligence reports as early as November that the virus had a cataclysmic potential. In January, the warning resonated, including a memo from White House Trade Adviser, Peter Navarro. It seems that Trump is trying to scapegoat the WHO, which declared COVID-19 as a public health emergency on January 30. Instead of taking the warning seriously, Trump downplayed its severity, describing it as a common flu, which would disappear soon. This was before the WHO had put information in the public domain that the virus was capable of transmitting from person-to-person. China made a formal report to the WHO on the disease, December 31.
It is downright tomfoolery for Trump to pull the rug off the feet of the WHO in the middle of an unprecedented global health storm in a century. Therefore, “Congress must quickly reverse President (Donald) Trump’s defunding of the World Health Organisation. This should be a bipartisan priority, to provide US leadership in combating the worldwide pandemic,” the Seattle Times advocates.
Destabilising a critical global health body at this time is most callous. The WHO operates in six regions of the world to prevent health emergencies, promote health and keep the world safe, serve the vulnerable and support the development of tools necessary during dire times such as now. This explains why its Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19, outlines funding of not less than $675 million for critical response assistance to countries in need of help in April 2020.
In furtherance of this agenda, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said in partnership with the African Centre for Disease Control, African Union and other UN agencies, the agency has organised training for healthcare workers in surveillance, case management and laboratory diagnostics, thus helping African countries, undoubtedly the most vulnerable to the pandemic, build some capacity of sorts.
Funnily enough, Trump may have been on a familiar turf with the WHO funding freeze. Before the decision, he had put the WHO funding in 2021 at $65 million, a 50 per cent reduction in his proposed 2020 contribution, according to the CNN. Again, the administration’s budget proposal in March recommended massive 12 per cent cut to the funds for the US Department of Health and Human Services and a 10 per cent reduction for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, an international security behemoth in the aftermath of World War II, has not been spared either. The US is responsible for its 22 per cent direct funding, but Trump has reduced it to 16 per cent.
Trump should allow the US as a global leader, to live up to this responsibility. A provisional modelling on the virus by the WHO regional centre in Nairobi, says confirmed cases, now in thousands, could ramp up to 10 million within three to six months. Clearly, Africa and other areas of the world with weak health infrastructure face a clear and present danger, made more toxic by Trump’s ill-advised decision to deny the global agency cash this time. A former US Ambassador to the UN, Samatha Power, has advised him to retrace his step, pointing out that the Ebola virus threat was defeated because of the US public sector investment in the sub-region. Trump should therefore, allow reason to supervene.