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U.S. suspending WHO funding may put people in poor countries at risk
By Wen Qing  ·  2020-04-24  ·   Source: NO.18 APRIL 30, 2020
Bruce Aylward, an epidemiologist who led a World Health Organization field trip to Wuhan in February, speaks at a press briefing in Beijing on February 24 (XINHUA)
Doing almost nothing to prevent the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) from spreading in the U.S. in the early days. Then panicking when it spread rapidly and passing the buck to China and eventually, to the World Health Organization (WHO). This sums up U.S. President Donald Trump's "efforts" in the past months to cope with the pandemic.

WHO's efforts to apprise the world of the dangers ahead by sending an expert group to China to learn about the outbreak, announcing a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, training medical staff and health workers and preparing medical supplies for vulnerable countries—all this work was summarily dismissed by the U.S. president, who also announced suspension of U.S. funding for WHO on April 14.

Unsurprisingly, this move has been widely opposed. Many say with the presidential election looming, Trump had to find a scapegoat to cover up his negligence as the U.S. has become the epicenter of the pandemic. The U.S. move is likely to impact the global fight against the pandemic, especially in the most vulnerable countries. This might in turn affect the credibility and reliability of the U.S. as the most powerful member of the international community.
World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announces the official name for the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 11 (XINHUA)

Politicizing a crisis

As of April 23, confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. had surpassed 840,000 with over 47,000 deaths. Trump accused WHO of mismanaging and covering up the pandemic. However, according to an article in The Washington Post, Americans at World Health Organization Transmitted Real-Time Information About Coronavirus to Trump Administration, on April 19, "from the

beginning of the outbreak, CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] officials were tracking the disease and consulting with WHO counterparts. A team led by Ray Arthur, Director of the Global Disease Detection Operations Center at the CDC, compiles a daily summary about infectious disease events and outbreaks, categorized by level of urgency, that is sent to agency officials."

Clearly, WHO is not responsible for the disastrous situation in the U.S. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressing regret at Trump's decision, said the organization will conduct a review to assess its response, find ways to fill the funding gap, and continue its work as usual.

"Halting funding for WHO during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds. 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," Microsoft co-founder and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Co-Chair Bill Gates wrote on Twitter.

Even U.S. allies have refused to follow Trump. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson said the UK has no plans to stop funding for WHO, which has an important role to play in leading the global health response. "Coronavirus is a global challenge and it's essential that countries work together to tackle this shared threat," the spokesperson said.

"Blaming others won't help. The virus knows no borders," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted. In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine on April 10, Maas said, "There really isn't any dispute, even in the U.S., that many of the measures were taken too late."

WHO is not the only one on Trump's blame list, which also includes his predecessor Barack Obama, the media, Democrat governors and China, with maybe many more to come.

Withdrawing from international organizations and treaties has become the new normal of the Trump administration and the WHO reaction might not be the last one, Diao Daming, an associate professor at the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China, said. "The Trump administration has no interest in international systems and global governance, and has pursued America First across the board," he said. "WHO might be the scapegoat with the least cost for the U.S. for now. The Trump administration still hopes to maintain medical supplies cooperation with other countries due to its domestic infection situation."

However, suspending funding for WHO even as a large number of infected people are dying in the U.S. and many developing countries and regions need support from the organization shows the worst timing. "This reflects the Trump administration still views this pandemic as a power struggle," Sun Chenghao, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of American Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said. As the largest financial contributor to WHO, the U.S. has resorted to the most extreme measure to put pressure on WHO, Sun said.

The real sufferers

The U.S. suspension of funding jeopardizes some of WHO's key missions and emergency fund to help at-risk countries across the world fight the coronavirus pandemic. WHO's funding comprises the assessed contributions of member countries and voluntary contributions. The amount each member state has to pay is calculated based on the country's wealth and population. The U.S. is obligated to pay 22 percent of the total.

The assessed contributions account for less than one quarter of WHO's financing, voluntary funding remains the man contributor, coming from countries, companies, foundations and international agencies. U.S. contributions in this category vary depending on global health crises and U.S. political priorities.

While the U.S. has undoubtedly contributed most to WHO in the past decades, according to the agency, Washington had owed it more than $99 million as of March 31. Trump's funding halt came after his 2021 budget request proposed slashing in half the amount Congress allocated the UN agency in 2020, from roughly $122 million to less than $58 million.

"Indeed, WHO will be under pressure as the U.S. halts funding. The global fight against the pandemic will also take a big hit," Diao said. "This move could be viewed as the U.S.' voluntary relinquishing of leadership in the global anti-pandemic fight." In this crucial period, the U.S., driven by the interests of some politicians, made this political move at the expense of people's health and lives. So if it attempts to restore its leadership later, it might be rejected by the rest of the world, he added.

It's still not clear when or how much of the U.S. funding will be suspended. Trump said the review of WHO's work would take 60-90 days. This means the U.S. will not pay the assessed contributions it owes for 2020, and stop all voluntary contributions, including donations to the COVID-19 fund, according to Ian Johnstone, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, a private university in Massachusetts. But it's also possible that Trump will decide, once the review is over, to reinstate the funding, he said.

Although Tedros said WHO would try to find ways to fill the funding gaps, it is still unclear whether it is able to secure adequate funding. In the aftermath of Trump's announcement, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced additional $150 million of grant funding for the global response to COVID-19. British diplomat James Roscoe said the UK would provide a $252-million package of funds to WHO and other UN agencies, saying eradicating the coronavirus "requires a global effort." China announced on April 23 that it will give another $30 million to WHO, in addition to the previous donation of $20 million, to support the global fight against COVID-19. But till the gap is filled, the poor in developing countries might be the first to suffer.

(Original Title: A Convenient Scapegoat)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to wenqing@bjreview.com

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