In April 2020, US President Trump, in a press conference threatened the WHO that it would cease its funding to the organization. Last week, on 28 May 2020 Trump perpetrated a visceral attack on WHO and China in a Press Briefing. He made startling announcements about terminating the country’s association with WHO and revising the policies with Hong Kong at the behest of China’s security law. There was also a proclamation to suspend the entry of Chinese nationals, whom the US views as a “potential security risk” and an order to track the ‘differing practices’ of Chinese Companies, which are listed in the US financial market.
Trump believed that China and the WHO (whom Trump once called China’s Puppet) misled the world about the Virus since its inception in Wuhan. The devastating steps issued by the Trump administration will have severe implications on the global health and globalized economy.
The exit of the US from WHO will hinder several necessary vaccine programs being carried out under the organization. Many politicians including the Republican Senator Lamar Alexander criticized the steps of Mr. Trump amid the pandemic which has consumed more than 100,000 lives in the US itself stating that dearth of funding would disrupt the vaccine trials. The country is in dire need of the vaccine than any other nation, and this step is eliminating the chances for its immediate development.
The US provides the maximum amount of funds to the WHO and has often directed the organization to make a series of changes while establishing various global health-related programs like eradication of smallpox, polio, and developing Ebola vaccine. The World Health Organisation is a Geneva-based agency of the United Nations which was established on 7 April 1948 to work towards providing “all people of the highest possible level of health”.
Trump’s recent exit from WHO will question the legitimacy of the UN body over international issues and might set a precedent for other nations to do the same including France, UK, Canada, Australia which have on multiple occasions, blamed China for the poor handling of the pandemic. Before delving into the implications we must know what brought the US and WHO culminate to a bitter end according to US President Donald Trump.
1. WHO is China Centric
In a press briefing on 7 April 2020, President Trump launched a scathing attack on WHO where he, for the first time, explicitly threatened ceasing its funding to the body claiming that ”they have been wrong about a lot of things”. That day the US had recorded the maximum number of deaths in 24 hours due to coronavirus which was more than 1300 lives. The next day on 8 April, Zhao Lijian (Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson) responded that China had shown “transparency” and such action would have a negative impact on fighting the pandemic.
A lot of scientists and doctors criticized the Trump administration for disproportionately less number of testings. Trump also said that WHO has been “wrong about a lot of information early” referring to its initial dismissal for the outbreak as a ‘Global health emergency’ on 23 January 2020. However, WHO did declare COVID-19 as the Global Health Emergency on 30 January 2020 exclaiming, “This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency”. On the same date, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedro Adhanom also said that there was “no evidence of Human to Human transmission outside China”. Here, the UN body was referring to the novel coronavirus which originated from Wuhan in December 2019.
China tried to conceal the viable information about the virus and released a false statement on 3 January 2020 of no human to human transmission. The Chinese authorities had also charged various doctors and medical staff for “publishing false information on the internet without verification”. One of the pioneer Doctors who disseminated the news potential outbreak of the SARS-like virus, Dr. Li Wenliang, was accused of spreading fake rumors and disturbing social orders by the Public Health Bureau. Dr. Li died of coronavirus on 7 Feb.
China being a one-party dictatorship also resorted to heavy censorship to curb the information on social media. Wuhan authorities even confirmed that they detained 8 people for spreading the information. Besides China painting a delusional picture of the situation being under control, the US Centres for Disease Control & Prevention released multiple warnings and advisories to any American planning to visit China, 6th January onwards.
The Trump administration took a rather phlegmatic approach when the US reported its first case of COVID-19, a passenger arriving from China. They also stated that everything would be just fine. In the conference on 7 April 2020, Trump explicitly said that WHO “criticized the travel ban” but the truth is his decision to ban travel from China came a day after the WHO’s declaration of COVID-19 as a global health emergency. That ban was then not applied to the US citizens coming from China.
Even when Trump announced National Emergency on 13 March 2020, he called it “unnecessary” projecting his disconcerted approach. He even used words like “Chinese Virus” to promote the virus as a foreign virus with racist undertones. Meanwhile, WHO had always been working closely with China, even sent its officials in late January to understand the gravity of the situation. Trump, in order to dodge the criticism over his failed efforts, started scapegoating China and WHO which is why he said, “They (WHO) seem to be very China Centric ”.
2. WHO is like a PR Agency for China
In a press conference on 30 April 2020 Donald Trump said that “WHO should be ashamed of themselves”. He also claimed that he has evidence that proves that Coronavirus emerged from the Wuhan lab. Here, the lab in question is the Wuhan Lab of Virology. There have been conspiracy theories floating around the virus being accidentally spread through its lab. The presence of this lab in a place, which is the centre point of the outbreak accommodated China in a place of scrutiny. On April 17, 2020, the Chinese officers accepted their mistake and revised the death figures which saw a 50% rise in Wuhan. US President Donald Trump questioned China’s transparency while talking about the new figures and threatened China of “serious consequences” if it is knowingly responsible for the pandemic.
On May 1, 2020, WHO put an end to such conspiracy theories and claimed that there is no proof that the virus is artificially engineered in a lab. The Executive Director of WHO Health Emergency Programme said, “We are assured that this virus is natural in origin and what is important is that we establish what that natural host for the virus is” (sic). WHO also praised China for its handling of the pandemic and instructed the world to learn from Wuhan on “how they are bringing society back to normal”. The response came as a dig to the US who had claimed on multiple occasions that WHO misled the world and held back a lot of information even announcing to hold China Responsible. He also made a very controversial statement that WHO is “like the Public Relations Agency for China”, which made a lot of headlines.
3. WHO failed to engage and act
Donald Trump has been quick to point out the amount paid by the US compared to China. According to a report by Forbes “3.5 billion dollars has flowed from U.S. Taxpayers to the WHO since 2010”. For the two-year budget cycle of 2018 and 2019, the United States paid a whopping total of 893 million dollars which is more than 20% of the entire WHO funding.
Before announcing the termination of their relations with the WHO, the amount of money paid was the crucial aspect that Donald Trump mentioned in his speech on 28 May 2020. Trump stated that the “WHO has failed to engage and act” and claimed this decision as a measure to protect American’s security and prosperity.
Critics thought of the decision to be rather irrational as the US has the maximum say in all WHO meetings. The top WHO staff always comprises of American citizens and the country’s interests are always prioritized while going through major reforms. Amanda Glassman, Executive Vice President of the Center Global Development asked in an interview, “Is that what our goal is? We are giving up leadership of the COVID 19 response, basically”.
Withdrawing the US from the WHO means all the global health programs coming to a halt. Programs that vouch for eradicating Ebola, Polio, or even producing vaccines for coronavirus would require a lot of money, and losing such a major chunk of it would undermine the capabilities of the UN body to reach out in remote impoverished regions for health aid. It is still not clear if there will be any deliberation within the US administration to reconsider the unilateral decision.
While the entire world is in complete chaos, the WHO recently responded that they regret Mr. Trump’s decision.