United States President Donald Trump recently said he was temporarily stopping US funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). His reason is that the United Nations’ global health agency was slow to raise the alarm over the global threat from the coronavirus and too “China-centric” in its response. However, what Trump didn’t reveal was that the organisation’s funding was already on his mind since February 7, when his administration was suggesting cutting the US contribution, about $400m annually, by half as part of $3bn cuts to US global health funding across the board.
Now it is evident that the allegation by Trump and his supporters that the WHO was slow to warn of the risk of human-to-human transmission, and that it failed to cross-examine Chinese transparency early on, has no factual basis. In truth, WHO technical guidance issued in early January did warn of the risk of human-to-human transmission and the organisation declared coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern a day before Trump announced his partial ban on flights from China. Trump”scapegoating of WHO is following a familiar playbook: finding others to blame for his own mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has included calling it the “Chinese virus”, blaming the previous Obama administration and taking aim at state governors.
However, this is not to underestimate the seriousness of the Trump threat. The WHO, to which the US supposedly contributes 10-15% of its budget as its largest contributor, has been appealing for an extra $1bn to help fight the coronavirus. While the suspension of funding by the US for 60-90 days is relatively small – not least because the US is so far in arrears in its annual payments – the potential for a general US withdrawal from global health funding under the cover of this announcement would be very serious and felt most profoundly in places that need the most support.
Even before the Trump announcement, the organisation was looking at potential cuts to already underfunded programming. Such impacts could be felt in programmes already complicated by the coronavirus, such as vaccination for communicable diseases and in building up early warning systems and resilience to deal with diseases such as Ebola in African countries.
Public health authorities worldwide say Trump’s decision is “extremely problematic”, noting that the WHO was leading efforts to help developing countries fight the spread of Covid-19. “This is the agency that’s looking out for other countries and leading efforts to stop the pandemic. This is exactly the time when they need more funding, not less,” they say.
As potentially crippling financially for the WHO as the US government’s catch-as-catch can is, it has not come as a surprise as we pointed out earlier. The US has the notoriety of using its financial muscles to arm twist the UN and its agencies to play by its rules. We recall its decision to withdraw from the UNESCO in January 2019, when UNESCO admitted Palestine as a member in 2018.
As was on that occasion, the US this time stands alone. Even its NATO allies have refused to back it. In deed, many EU national governments have promised to fill the financial void created by the US decision. China also has ramped up its contribution to the WHO budget. We commend their courage in defying Trump. He should be told in no uncertain terms that unilateralism or ultra nationalism has no place in the global system, now or in the future.