• Carole M

The US suspends WHO funding amidst the global COVID-19 crisis

US President Donald Trump has announced that the US will be cutting its funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) – a decision that will have major implications for the global health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is primarily because the US has historically been the organization’s largest donor having regularly contributed around US $400 million annually.

US President Donald Trump (file)

Theoretically the White House cannot block funding of international institutions mandated by Congress. But the administration has found ways around such constitutional hurdles on other issues – by simply failing to disburse funds or apply sanctions, for example. The funding could be formally rescinded, but that would require Senate approval, or “reprogrammed” by being diverted to another purpose that the White House could argue is consistent with the will of Congress.

“Whatever form it takes, this is a deeply shortsighted and dangerous decision - at any time, let alone during a ... pandemic,” said Alexandra Phelan, assistant professor at the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.

It’s not that Trump’s criticism of WHO is wholly without merit. Most public health officials agree that the WHO’s response to COVID-19 has been less than perfect. In fact, evidence does suggest that the organization’s announcements closely mirrored official reports published by China for much of early 2020. For instance, the WHO had maintained that the SARS CoV-2 virus does not transmit among humans till as late as January 14, 2020. This is in spite of the fact that the first Covid-19 case outside China had been reported in Thailand a day earlier. The agency also ignored warnings from Taiwan – excluded from WHO thanks to Chinese pressure – about the spread of the disease back on December 31. Plus, new internal documents suggest that Chinese authorities knew about the pandemic and kept quiet for a critical six days till January 20. However, when a WHO team visited China in February, it merely praised Chinese authorities for taking bold steps to contain the contagion.

The problem, however, is not so uni-dimensional: While it is easy to criticize the organization’s work during the current and past outbreaks such as the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the WHO remains the foremost health organization of the world and is an invaluable asset against global pandemics especially for less-developed countries. From providing African countries with sufficient laboratory equipment, diagnostic tests, means of transport and detection kits to training the continents health workers to combat this crisis, the WHO’s work has been key to slowing the spread of the disease in the most resource-constrained region of the world.

WHO supported lab (file)

During this same time, the US President had been making crucial errors in judgement regarding the impact of the disease in his country. While virtually no testing was under way in the US throughout February, Trump assumed the consequently low number of confirmed US cases meant that his country had somehow escaped. “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” he boasted on 24 February, nearly a month after the WHO declaration of emergency. “We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health [Organisation] have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” The US now shares the largest burden of COVID-19 cases in the world having surpassed over 650,000 cases. In fact, Trump’s turn against the WHO only gathered pace over the past week, as more and more reports emerged of the administration’s own complacent and dysfunctional response.

Perhaps then, it is reassuring that most of US’ allies have rallied behind the WHO and condemned US actions. The UK, for instance, has pledged GBP 200 million to help the global response against the pandemic; GBP 65 million of this had been earmarked for the WHO. It remains to be seen how the funding cut impacts the WHO and more importantly the world.