A week after threatening to withhold funding from the World Health Organisation, Donald Trump announced yesterday (15 April) that the US would suspend payments to the international body.
“Today I’m instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organisation while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organisation’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” Trump said, adding that “one of the most dangerous and costly decisions from the WHO was its disastrous decision to oppose travel restrictions from China and other nations”. Trump noted that he, by contrast, had suspended travel from China.
Aside from the fact that the US did not, as Trump has repeatedly claimed, suspend all travel from China, there are several problems with the announcement. For one thing, it is as yet unclear how funding will be suspended, as it is largely appropriated by Congress. As others have speculated, Trump could propose to withhold congressionally appropriated funds under the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, but that would require congressional approval within 45 days.
But the world, watching on as Trump rants, is perhaps less concerned by the technicalities of the suspension than by the president’s willingness to act at this particular point in time. As UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said in a statement, “It is also not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organisation or any other humanitarian organisation in the fight against the virus.” The US is the WHO’s biggest donor.
The WHO’s closeness to China is, as experts on multilateral organisations have explained, in part because of the vacuum left by the US under Trump. China is able to play world leader – while spending far less than the US in support of international organisations – partly because the American president, for instance, bashes the WHO rather than assembling a credible international response to coronavirus.
China said it was “seriously concerned” by Trump’s announcement, and it is not the only country to take notice. Russia, which has done its own coronavirus diplomacy, sending protective equipment (some of which turned out to be faulty on arrival) abroad, called Trump’s decision “selfish”.
But for US citizens, there is also the stark context of the announcement. Though the WHO did bungle its response – tweeting on 14 January that “preliminary investigations have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus” – that is not the reason that the US, specifically, has the most known Covid-19 cases of any country. It is not the reason that on 14 April, the same day that Trump bashed the WHO, the US recorded an additional 2,228 deaths due to the disease, which has become the country’s leading cause of death.
The WHO had Covid-19 tests on offer, but the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention produced its own tests, which did not work, had to be recalled, and left America trailing. Though the US reported its first case to the WHO on the same day as South Korea, the latter, through testing and tracing, was able to reduce its case numbers, while America’s grew. What’s more, while the WHO may have tweeted in mid-January that it did not believe human transmission spread the virus, it did declare an emergency shortly thereafter. But nearly a month later, Trump was tweeting that the coronavirus “is very much under control in the USA!”
“In reality our own govt experts were flashing red about the risk, as has been widely reported. They just couldn’t get through to POTUS,” tweeted Jeremy Konyndyk, who, during the Obama administration, served as the director of USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance. “This is not about WHO’s culpability or need for reform; it’s about creating a scapegoat for the [US government’s] own ineptness.”
The WHO, in other words, did make its mistakes, and its relationship to China is worthy of investigation – but the WHO is not the reason that the situation in the US deteriorated. That reason is standing in the White House, pointing fingers, and making announcements about suspending funding to the WHO.