Long after the World Health Organization called it a pandemic on March 11, President Donald Trump continued to minimize the health threat posed by the spread of the coronavirus. The result is evident in the state of New York, among others.
When cutting funding to the WHO by denouncing its mismanagement of the crisis and its complacency toward Chinese authorities, Trump is simply doing what he has done since coming to power: namely, rewriting history by looking for scapegoats. In fact, this drives his general policy of divorce from multilateral institutions, reconfirms his indifference toward the need for a coordinated fight against COVID-19 and leaves China, perversely, to enlarge its influence.
At the end of January, Trump commended his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for his “efforts and transparency” in the fight against the coronavirus, although even then it seemed that this transparency left something to be desired. Trump’s speech has since “evolved” in light of the undeniable spread of the virus and in furtherance of his electoral interests, leading to Tuesday’s announcement in the White House Rose Garden that he would be freezing the annual $400 million contribution by the U.S. to the WHO budget. During the course of this daily press conference, the president once again lashed out at journalists who questioned him about his contradictions and his responsibilities.
Not that the WHO does not deserve criticism; far from it. The intergovernmental organization has been the subject of criticism in the past 20 years for different reasons, from SARS in 2003 to Ebola in 2014 and 2018, as well as the H1N1 flu in 2009. It deserves criticism today for the exaggerated deference with which it flattered Beijing for its response to the pandemic, despite everything we know about the opaque behavior of the Chinese dictatorship.
In 2009, the WHO was further singled out after information posted online by WikiLeaks highlighted the financial influence exerted by the pharmaceutical lobby in the preparation of an expert report that explored ways to improve public health in developing countries. However, it is clear that the fundamental issues underlying these revelations did not factor in Trump’s complaints about the WHO today.
In the midst of a pandemic, by freezing WHO funding — of which the American contribution represents about one-fifth of its $4 billion budget — Donald Trump is making an insane decision, one condemned everywhere, which will have dire consequences for poor countries. The WHO does not play a large role in Western countries gifted with large public health systems. Without coercive powers, the U.N. agency can still play a useful function in countries where the health systems, if they can even be said to exist, are essentially private.
The non-governmental organization Oxfam put out a report last week titled, “Dignity Not Destitution,” which stated that half a billion people risk falling into poverty if support plans are not quickly implemented on a global scale. Without that, the pandemic “could set back the fight against poverty by a decade.” However, at bottom, the WHO is only one link in the international collaboration enterprise that must absolutely take shape.
Of course, there is an urgent need for cooperation. But what kind of cooperation, exactly? These days, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Group of 20 finance ministers are holding summit meetings, all supposedly working toward a way out of the crisis. But what “sustainable” solutions can we realistically hope will come out of this regarding the fights against economic injustice and climate change, beyond efforts to quickly reestablish world trade? In the immediate future, African countries, to speak only of them, have less need for a vaccine — as if a vaccine will free them of the need to work to improve people’s living conditions — than to see the West help them avoid economic collapse by finally making the effort to massively cancel their debts, as French President Emmanuel Macron proposed on Monday. In the immediate future, the world most of all needs an antidote to the virus of Trumpism.
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