After months of harshly criticizing the World Health Organization’s (WHO) response to the outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump has formally notified Congress and the United Nations the United States will withdraw from the U.N.-affiliated body.
Under a 1948 act of Congress, withdrawal requires a year’s notice, so it won’t take effect until July 6, 2021.
Costly Errors, China Ties
Tensions between Washington and the Switzerland-based WHO had been mounting after a series of missteps by the U.N. health organization that raised questions about the WHO’s close ties to China, the source of the new coronavirus COVID-19. The WHO came under attack from the White House and members of Congress after its initial assertion in January the virus could not be spread by human-to-human transmission. Research has confirmed the virus can be extremely contagious in certain circumstances, and officials worldwide have mandated social distancing, the wearing of masks, and lockdowns to stem the spread of the pandemic.
In addition to its early praise of China for its handling of the virus, the WHO was quick to condemn the travel ban the White House imposed on China at the end of January. Travel restrictions are now widespread, severely reducing international and domestic flights and limiting train travel.
The WHO’s secretary-general, Ethiopian microbiologist Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, assumed that position with considerable Chinese support. This raised suspicions he may have been too beholden to his political backers to recognize the seriousness of the pandemic and act accordingly.
In April, the White House announced it was freezing U.S. funding for the WHO while the administration undertook a review of America’s relationship with the organization. This was followed by President Trump’s May 29 announcement that the United States would leave the organization.
Trump said the WHO had bowed to pressure from China “to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered by Chinese authorities” and it is under the “total control” of China.
Biggest Financial Contributor
The United States is by far the world’s biggest funder of WHO, contributing about $450 million a year. The WHO will be hard-pressed to make up for the loss. The second-largest contributor is not even a country; it is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The American Medical Association (AMA) objected to the withdrawal.
“The Trump administration’s official withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) puts the health of our country at grave risk,” the organization said in a statement. The AMA is “in strong opposition to this decision, which is a major setback to science, public health, and global coordination efforts needed to defeat COVID-19,” it said.
Whether the government follows through on leaving WHO depends on the November elections. Presumptive Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden has said he would reverse the decision on his first day in office.
‘A Year to Reform and Redeem’
The Trump administration is giving the WHO a year to reform itself and protect its primary source of funding, says Horace Cooper, co-chairman of Project 21, the black leadership network of the National Center for Public Policy Research.
“Using the power of the purse, the Trump administration has the World Health Organization right where it needs to be,” Cooper told Health Care News. “While they really don’t deserve it, WHO has a year to reform and redeem itself or risk losing nearly half-a-billion in American taxpayer support. WHO’s mishandling of the H1N1, Ebola, and coronavirus pandemics, and its loyalty to the Chinese government, must be addressed.
“Any political changes in our government should leave this process to run its course as a service to world health and accountability to the American people,” Cooper said.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. (email@example.com) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.