President Donald Trump is not wrong to question the World Health Organization’s early response to the emerging coronavirus outbreak and its apparent deference to what we now know were false assurances by Chinese officials about the seriousness of the outbreak.
But Trump is wrong to use these otherwise legitimate concerns as an excuse to cut off U.S. contributions to the international health agency until it can satisfy his demand for answers and undertake fundamental structural reforms. As Trump may have noticed, the WHO is pretty busy at the moment fighting a still-raging pandemic. It’s irresponsible and counterproductive to interrupt critical efforts by the agency to support the development of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, coordinate international shipments of protective gear, train health care workers and help developing nations slow the spread of infections, which surpassed 2 million worldwide on Wednesday.
As always, we can’t help but be suspicious about the timing of Trump’s attack on the WHO. Why now? So often the president’s pronouncements seem motivated by his ego and need for validation. In this case, Trump appears so desperate to deflect criticism about his slow and initially dismissive response, which left the U.S. dangerously unprepared for the pandemic’s inevitable spread, that he’s actively trying to rewrite recent (and well-documented) history.
Yes, WHO officials were probably too credulous of assurances by Chinese officials that they had the outbreak under control, and they were too timid to call for travel restrictions in January that might have helped contain the disease, although infections had already spread far from China by then. But Trump was just as taken in, praising Chinese President Xi Jinping several times for his transparency and “smart” response to the outbreak.
Now that it turns out we were all duped, Trump is looking for a scapegoat. And he has found one in the oft-criticized WHO, an arm of the United Nations created in 1945 with a goal of promoting global health. The organization was roundly thrashed for its mishandling of the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and for taking too long to sound the alarm about the outbreak to the rest of the world. (Ironically, just a few years earlier the organization was criticized for being too alarmist about the swine flu pandemic.)
There’s a misconception about what the global health organization is empowered and expected to do. The WHO is not solely, or even mostly, focused on providing an early warning of emerging infectious diseases. It runs a multitude of programs to promote public health, such as assisting in the creation of vaccines, supporting public education efforts around measles and other communicable diseases, and building strong health care networks in poorer countries. It does this all while trying, and sometimes failing, to balance the competing interests and demands of its member nations.
There also seems to be some confusion about how the WHO is funded, which is through a combination of voluntary payments and annual assessments that are calculated based on a country’s wealth and population. The U.S. has been especially generous with voluntary payments, and typically allocates a total of $400 million to $500 million a year, including assessments, because of the general understanding that it is in our best interests to fight communicable diseases where and when they crop up and before they can spread to our shores.
Trump may not actually have the power to freeze funding for the roughly $116 million in annual dues that are paid at the beginning of the year; Congress wrote that obligation into the annual spending bill for fiscal 2020. And although Congress gave the president some flexibility over the voluntary contributions, there’s not another payment due for 60 days. So his threat to the agency could very well be empty.
The World Health Organization may be a structurally flawed and overly political institution that doesn’t serve the public health needs of the 21st century well. But that’s a discussion for a calmer time after this is crisis is over. For now, it would be folly to kneecap a critical pandemic-fighting agency just to have someone to blame for mistakes Trump already made.