Furore over Trump's withdrawal of WHO funding

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Donald Trump has been condemned for putting countless lives at risk when he announced the US is freezing payments to the World Health Organisation (WHO) over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, reports The Guardian. The US president said funding would be on hold for 60 to 90 days pending a review of the WHO’s warnings about the coronavirus and China. He accused the global body of “severely mismanaging and covering up” the threat, even though it declared a public health emergency on 30 January – after which he continued to hold rallies, play golf and compare the coronavirus to the common flu.

The report says critics were stunned at the move to cut money from a critical UN agency during a global pandemic. António Guterres, the UN secretary general, declared now was “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. “As I have said before, now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences,” he said in a statement.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University, is quoted in The Guardian as saying: “Without a WHO that’s empowered there will be many, many more deaths, and not just as it marches through sub-Saharan Africa, which is next, but also here in the US.”

The report says Trump’s main criticism of the WHO was its “China-centric” failure to investigate credible reports from sources in Wuhan about the outbreak of the virus. “Through the middle of January, it parroted and publicly endorsed the idea that there was not human to human transmission happening, despite reports and clear evidence to the contrary,” he said. “The delays the WHO experienced in declaring a public health emergency cost valuable time – tremendous amounts of time.”

But, the report says, this critique is at odds with the actual timeline. It emerged last week that in technical guidance notes, the WHO warned the US and other countries about the risk of human-to-human transmission as early as 10 January.

Jeremy Konyndyk, the former head of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAid, noted in the report that although on 14 January the WHO tweeted that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”, by 23 January it had published an official report warning of human-to-human transmission and transmissibility higher than seasonal flu.

Konyndyk, now a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, wrote on Twitter: “So to pin the blame on WHO for this, you have to believe that somehow those 9 days between 14 and 23 January were critical to the lack of US preparedness. It’s lunacy. The administration spent the whole month of February doing nothing to meaningfully prepare the homeland.”

Leslie Dach, the chair of the pressure group Protect Our Care, said of the WHO defunding: “This is nothing more than a transparent attempt by President Trump to distract from his history downplaying the severity of the coronavirus crisis and his administration’s failure to prepare our nation.

The report says Dach, who served as the global Ebola coordinator for the health department, added: “To be sure, the World Health Organisation is not without fault but it is beyond irresponsible to cut its funding at the height of a global pandemic. This move will undoubtedly make Americans less safe.”

Trump’s declared suspension of funding in the midst of a pandemic is confirmation – if any were needed – that he is in search of scapegoats for his administration’s much delayed and chaotic response to the crisis. A further report in The Guardian reports that 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 short-sighted and dangerous decision – at any time, let alone during a … pandemic,” said Alexandra Phelan, assistant professor at the Centre for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.

“It’s a bizarre decision that would be profoundly detrimental to global public health,” said Gavin Yamey, the director of Duke University’s centre for policy impact in global health. “He’s trying to distract from his own errors that have led to the worst government response to COVID-19 on Earth.”

The report says public health officials generally agree that the WHO’s response to the pandemic has not been perfect, but much improved on the organisation’s lambasted performance in the face of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and immeasurably better than how the US has handled COVID-19.

The WHO first raised the alert over the Wuhan outbreak on 5 January, and beginning on 7 January it was briefing public health officials from the US and other national governments on the outbreak in regular teleconference calls. On 9 January the WHO distributed guidance to member states for their own risk assessment and planning. Trump and his supporters have focused on a 14 January WHO tweet reporting the findings of preliminary Chinese studies suggesting “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission.

While the WHO was obliged to report on the latest findings of a member state at the source of the outbreak, its officials told their counterparts in technical briefings on 10 and 11 January, and briefed the press on 14 January, that human-to-human transmission was still a strong possibility given the experience of past coronavirus epidemics and urged suitable precautions.

Yamey said it was ridiculous to point to a single tweet early in the pandemic as the fixed position of the WHO. “The whole point of science is that we have initial hypotheses and initial ideas, and we update those ideas as more and more data emerges,” he said.

Announcing the cut in funding, Trump accused the WHO of failing to send its experts to the source of the outbreak to gather samples. That failure decisively set back the effect to contain the pandemic, he claimed. In fact, the report says, Beijing blocked a WHO delegation from visiting Wuhan in the first weeks of the outbreak. The WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had to fly to Beijing to meet Xi Jinping on 29 January to negotiate entry and information sharing. A WHO team was allowed to visit Wuhan on 22 February.

The report says Tedros has been criticised for his flattery of Xi and the Chinese response, in the face of Beijing’s obstructionism and cover-up attempts. His defenders said that such diplomacy was the price for entry.

And, the report points out, Trump did more than his own fair share of Xi flattery. On 24 January, the president tweeted “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus … The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”

The Guardian reports that the claim that the delay in the WHO acquiring samples crippled the international response is also false. Chinese scientists publicly released the genetic sequence of COVID-19 on 11 January.

Full report in The Guardian

Full report in The Guardian

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