Three months after COVID-19 first appeared in China, US President Donald Trump has determined who to blame for the resulting global health pandemic: the World Health Organization. On Tuesday, he announced that he would cut American funding for the international body pending a US review of its handling of the outbreak.
America’s WHO Funding Revoked
“The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said, fulfilling a threat he issued last week when he called the WHO “China-centric.”
“This is an evaluation period, but in he meantime, we’re putting a hold on all funds going to World Heath.”
For 2018 and 2019, the US gave a combined $900 million to the WHO, according to the organization, which accounted for nearly 20% of its budget. Nearly 75% of America’s contribution was voluntary, as TIME reported.
Trump accused the WHO of withholding key data on the virus from the scientific community. He also said it was “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the virus,” in part because of a bias toward China.
The US now leads the world in COVID-19 deaths and cases.
The WHO Responds
“We alerted the world on January 5,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program. “Systems around the world, including the U.S., began to activate their incident management systems on January 6. And through the next number of weeks, we’ve produced multiple updates to countries, including briefing multiple governments, multiple scientists around the world, on the developing situation — and that is what it was, a developing situation.”
Ryan continued his breakdown of the organization’s response by stressing the emphasis it put on limiting possible human-to-human spread in the early days of the virus. Five days after the virus was identified, its genetic sequence was shared with the international medical community, he added.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he regrets Trump’s decision, but vowed that WHO’s global mission will continue.
“COVID-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small. It does not discriminate between nationalities, ethnicities or ideologies,” Tedros said. “Neither do we. This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat — a dangerous enemy.”
Months of Inaction by Trump
Trump’s decision to attack the WHO is his tactic for shifting blame for the crisis away from himself. In fact, Trump received a briefing from Alex Azar, his health secretary, on January 18 before the first US cases. Days later, Trump declared, “We have it totally under control … It’s going to be just fine.”
On Jan. 31, Trump said his administration was “working closely with China and others on Coronavirus outbreak. Only 5 people in U.S., all in good recovery.” In February, he floated the idea that warmer weather may cause it to disappear, and on Feb. 28 he called it a hoax politicized by Democrats for political gain.
On March 9, the American leader continued to assert that the virus was not that dangerous, tweeting, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Despite his nonchalant attitude toward the virus, when the WHO declared it a pandemic on March 17, Trump changed course and said “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
In an attempt to cover up for his own shortcomings, Trump is scapegoating the WHO. His move to halt funding has raised legal questions that Democrats are already jumping on.
House Speaker Pelosi Slams Trump’s ‘Illegal’ Move
“This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D–Cali. She said the move was “senseless” and called for International cooperation to fight the pandemic.
“This is sort of like shooting at an ambulance because you don’t like how quickly they responded to the first call, when you’ve still got lots of wounded,” said Sen. Christopher Coons, D–Del. Coons is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which in charge of allocating funding for groups like the WHO.
The committee allocated $120 million to cover membership dues for 2020, half of which has already been paid, according to the Washington Post. Voluntary contributions make up the rest of Washington’s funding, which varies between $200 million and $300 million per year.
Democrats argue the assessed dues that Congress appropriates money for cannot be restricted by Trump.
“In a desperate attempt to deflect blame, President Trump is violating the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment,” said Evan Hollander, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.
In that case, the Government Accountability Office determined Trump did indeed violate the law when he temporarily withheld military aid for Ukraine. The 1974 Impoundment Control Act significantly reduces the president’s power to withhold or reallocate funds appropriated by Congress. According to the law, the president must first notify Congress, which must approve the measure within 45 days.
However, Congress is not required to vote on proposals to revoke funds and historically has ignored such requests. Congress is also recessed until May, so there aren’t any immediate legislative responses it can pursue. When it does return, however, the topic will undubitably come up as Democrats seek to return the WHO’s funding.
Republicans Stand by Their Leader
Congressional Republicans are siding with Trump, at least for now.
“Cutting off funding at this time is the right move,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R–S.C. “This is a critical time for worldwide public health, and we cannot afford China apologists running the WHO. I support a suspension of funding by the United States until there is new leadership at the WHO.”
Sen. Todd Young, R–Ind., went a step further, calling for Tedros to appear before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee to answer for The WHO’s failures.
“It has given sanction to the ham-fisted response of the Chinese and the misinformation perpetuated by the Chinese,” Young said. “On all fronts, I’ve been not just unimpressed but outraged by the responsiveness and the performance of the World Health Organization.”
Some criticism of the WHO may be warranted. Tedros said “China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response” even as its reporting honesty was called into question. Some argue the organization could have declared a health emergency sooner, yet that power was also afforded to individual states, many of which did lock down sooner.
However, cutting funding during the pandemic, rather than waiting for it to subside and ordering a review before acting, only serves to make the situation worse. The WHO isn’t acting only on COVID-19 — it is fighting other diseases and crises across the globe, all of which require funding.
Trump’s slow response to the coronavirus likely cost American lives. His attempt to cover it up by scapegoating the WHO could cost more lives across the globe.