One may ask whether the World Health Organization acted fast enough in the first weeks of the outbreak.
On Tuesday, in the midst of a global pandemic, the U.S. president decided to suspend funding to the World Health Organization. While the organization’s performance is investigated, which may take two to three months, millions of dollars are being held up.
It is the American president’s absolute right to be critical of the WHO. He spoke of “severe mismanagement and covering up” the risks of COVID-19. It would be great if the president could substantiate his statements. Last week he accused the WHO of focusing too much on China and called the organization lax about imposing a travel ban.
Trump is not alone in his criticism. Australian Prime Minister Morrison, among others, also wondered why there was no worldwide travel ban, and why the WHO is not correcting China about reopening its markets. The virus outbreak may have started in Wuhan in December in a market where live animals were sold.
One may also question whether the WHO acted quickly enough in the first weeks after the outbreak. The first report of the outbreak in China came on Jan. 5 and the organization initially emphasized that there was no evidence that the new virus would be as deadly as the SARS virus. It did say, “Based on the information now available,” vigilance was required.
It is indeed a defect of the WHO that it has no teeth. The organization depends on the information it receives from member states. Since SARS, outbreaks of infectious diseases have to be reported to Geneva. On Jan. 11, the Chinese shared the full genetic sequence of COVID-19, but did not allow entry to WHO experts until the end of that month, which was, by the way, more quickly than occurred with the SARS outbreak.
The WHO also issues rules that countries must abide by. But it does not have a stick; there are no sanctions for member states that do not abide by the rules. When WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus mentioned a pandemic in mid-March before the outbreak of COVID-19, he also spoke about the “alarming negligence” of some countries. In the intervening months, Tedros called for action several times.
All these issues can be discussed, including whether it’s desirable that a single country, the United States, provides more than 10% of the budget in contributions and donations, and that the second largest donors are Bill and Melinda Gates. But it shouldn’t be a debate right now when the WHO experts are a life raft for many countries.
One suspects that by choosing this action at this very moment, Trump wants to cover up his own failure. He is looking for a scapegoat to convince American voters that it is not his administration but someone else who is responsible for the high death toll and high unemployment in the United States. Just like he consistently spoke of “the Chinese virus” before and not COVID-19.
The editor-in-chief of the authoritative medical journal The Lancet called Trump’s decision to suspend funding to the WHO “a crime against humanity. Those are big words. But in the midst of a pandemic, Trump’s decision is certainly dangerous.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted passage could not be independently verified.