World Leaders, Experts Drub Trump for Freezing WHO Funds

To defund the health agency run by the United Nations mid-pandemic, said the editor of The Lancet medical journal, is “a crime against humanity.”

President Donald Trump speaks in the Cabinet Room of the White House during a Tuesday meeting with people that have recovered from Covid-19. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(CN) — World leaders and health experts on Wednesday condemned President Donald Trump’s decision to freeze funding for the World Health Organization, the Geneva-based global health agency coordinating the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Freezing the WHO’s funds in the middle of the pandemic was lambasted as endangering lives, with the editor of The Lancet, a leading medical journal, even calling it a “crime against humanity.”

Trump’s move further erodes trust between the United States and its allies in Europe, where support for American might and ideals is draining away under Trump’s tenure in the White House. It comes at a dire moment for Europe, where more than 1 million people have been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus and more than 84,000 people have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. Europe is deeply concerned about catastrophic outbreaks at its periphery too, in places such as Africa and the Middle East, where the WHO plays a critical role.

“There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever to help contain and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic,” said Josep Borrell, the top foreign policy representative of the European Union, on Twitter. “Only by joining forces we can overcome this crisis that knows no borders.”

Europeans are staunch believers in international efforts and are flabbergasted at Trump’s attacks on international institutions and treaties such as the WHO, the World Trade Organization and the Paris climate agreement.

For days, Trump has been lashing out at the WHO and accusing it of doing China’s bidding by downplaying the initial outbreak of the new coronavirus after it emerged in the Chinese industrial city of Wuhan in December. At a White House briefing on Tuesday, Trump said the United States will stop sending the health agency funds while his administration reviews the agency’s handling of the pandemic.

“President Trump’s decision to defund WHO is simply this — a crime against humanity,” said Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, an international medical journal, on Twitter. “Every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity.”

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft whose foundation also funds the WHO, called Trump’s action “dangerous.” Gates is deeply involved in funding scientists to develop vaccines and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the WHO’s second largest funder.

“Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds,” Gates said on Twitter. “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.”

The United States is the biggest contributor to the WHO, a United Nations agency with the mission of helping nations, especially those in the developing world, fight diseases and improve health systems. Last year, the United States gave the WHO about $400 million. The U.S. is about $200 million in arrears in its contributions.

In this role, the WHO — a relatively small and underfunded agency considering its outsized task — has been catapulted to the forefront of the world’s attention during this global crisis. The agency is providing advice on containing the virus and on how to treat infections. It is also working with governments, health institutions, nongovernmental entities, sports stars and celebrities and private businesses to develop drug treatments, vaccines, containment strategies and to spread public messaging in the fight against the virus.

The WHO has about $2.5 billion at its disposal each year — a budget comparable to a large U.S. hospital. Its funding has not significantly increased for about three decades.

In attacking the WHO, Trump’s critics say, he is trying to shift blame for the catastrophic coronavirus outbreak in the United States away from his administration’s failings. For more than a month, Trump dismissed the virus as an insignificant threat, only to see his presidency overwhelmed by the pandemic.

“Blaming others won’t help,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “The virus knows no borders.”

Maas said that investing more in the WHO is crucial for developing and distributing coronavirus tests and vaccines.

“One of the best investments is to strengthen the U.N., above all the under-financed WHO,” the German foreign minister said.

During a regular briefing on Wednesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he hoped Trump will reconsider his decision.

“The United States has been a long standing, generous friend to the WHO and we hope it will continue to be so,” Tedros said.

Overall, the director-general was subdued Wednesday in his reaction to Trump’s unprecedented attack on the WHO  and said the agency was reviewing how it will be affected by the withdrawal of funds.

At a previous briefing after Trump first threatened to halt funding, an impassioned Tedros warned against “politicizing” the pandemic and said doing so would lead to “more body bags.”

The WHO has defended its handling of the outbreak and hit back at accusations that it was slow to warn the world about the severity of the virus.

Trump has cited a Jan. 14 statement by the WHO saying the virus appeared not to be transmitted between humans. The agency was relaying information from Chinese studies, but its experts also were warning member nations in technical briefings before Jan. 14 that the virus, as is common with other coronaviruses, may have been transmittable between humans through droplets.

In responding to the outbreak, the WHO was hamstrung because it lacks clout in forcing countries to share information about a disease outbreak, its defenders say. China notified the WHO about the coronavirus on Dec. 31 and shared the genetic sequence of the new virus on Jan. 12. Sharing the virus’ genome was needed before tests could be developed to find infected people.

But there are reports that before Dec. 31, scientists in China had linked a number of unusual pneumonia cases to a new coronavirus. Also, some experts believe China was underreporting the number cases it had found by early January when it said there were about 59 cases.

Criticism of the WHO has become common among Republican politicians. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has alleged the Chinese government “used the WHO to mislead the world” and charged that the agency “is either complicit or dangerously incompetent.”

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, also praised the president and said his action “should be a warning flare to the entire UN system that the U.S. will not settle for poor performance” over the pandemic.

Trump found additional support in his fight with the WHO in some corners of the world. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said during an interview on Australian radio that he sympathized with Trump. Some Australian politicians are pushing Morrison to follow Trump’s example and stop funding the global health agency, Australian media reported. Morrison said he was not going to do that because the WHO does important work. Australia provides about $5 million in funding each year.  

WHO officials have praised China throughout the outbreak, saying it was transparent in sharing information about the virus and took effective steps to contain its spread.

Trump and other critics, though, accuse the agency of not pressuring China to be more open about how dangerous the virus is. China is credibly accused of suppressing information about the virus in December and silencing doctors who were warning that a new deadly virus was circulating.

Trump accuses the WHO of being “China-centric” because it did not condone his decision to stop direct flights from China in late January.

Trump’s criticism of the WHO is by extension a broadening of a wide-ranging conflict between the U.S. and China over global supremacy. In recent weeks, the U.S. and China have blamed each other for the pandemic, with American and Chinese officials even spreading conspiracy theories that the virus was manufactured as a biological weapon by the other side. 

The WHO has warned that the pandemic can be overcome with only solidarity among all nations and it has called on the United States and China to set aside their differences and work together, as the U.S. and the former Soviet Union did in the 1960s to defeat smallpox. 

On Wednesday, Chinese officials denounced the U.S. decision to suspend funding to the WHO.

“The current global epidemic situation is grim. It is at a critical moment. This U.S. decision will weaken WHO’s capacities and undermine the international cooperation against the epidemic,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a news briefing.

Zhao told reporters that China is prepared to contribute more funds to the WHO to make up the shortfall. Beijing provides $20 million to the U.N. health agency each year.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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