COVID, Trump and the World Health Organization


One of the challenges Canada faces in addressing the pandemic is the resonance of policies south of the border, including the irrationalities of the US health care system and the dysfunctional response of the Trump administration. Today we focus on the latest chapter of the latter.

Considering president Donald Trump’s many irresponsible and perverse actions, it is difficult to match the decision to cut funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) in the midst of a global pandemic. Late on Tuesday president Trump declared US funding would be put on hold for 60-90 days pending a review “to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus”.

Leading health experts have labelled Donald Trump’s decision as a “damnable” act that will cost lives. Richard Horton, the brilliant editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, tweeted that Trump’s decision was “a crime against humanity … Every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity.” The move also drew a rebuke from the head of the United Nations, who said the WHO was “absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against Covid-19”.

Background: The WHO was founded as the UN global health body in 1948 in the aftermath of the Second World War with a mandate to promote global health, protect against infectious disease and to serve the vulnerable. It was inspired by the international sanitary conferences of the 19th century set up to combat communicable diseases such as cholera, yellow fever and plagues. Its current program envisages expanding universal healthcare to a billion more people, protecting another billion from health emergencies and providing a further billion people with better health and wellbeing. In practical terms, the badly underfunded WHO acts as a clearing house for investigation, data and technical recommendations on emerging disease threats such as the coronavirus and Ebola. It also supports eradication of existing diseases such as malaria and polio and promotes global public health.

While its role on emerging diseases is most familiar in the developed world with its more resilient healthcare systems, its practical involvement is far more intense in the global south, where it has been working to expand basic universal healthcare, support vaccination and sustain weak and often stressed health systems through its emergencies programs. Its 2018-9 budget was $4.8bn, which became $5.7bn when emergencies were included. Even before the Trump announcement, the organization was looking at potential cuts to already underfunded programming. Such impacts could be felt in programs already complicated by the coronavirus, such as vaccination for communicable diseases and in building up early warning systems and resilience to deal with diseases such as Ebola in African countries.

President Trump has presented the freezing of US funding to the WHO as a direct response to what he claims was its slow reaction in raising the alarm over the global threat from the coronavirus and being too “China-centric” in its response. But the organization’s funding was already in his sights on 7 February, when his administration was suggesting cutting the US contribution, about $400m annually, by half as part of $3bn cuts to US global health funding across the board. The WHO, to whom the US theoretically contributes roughly 10-15% of its budget as its largest contributor, has been appealing for an extra $1bn to help fight the coronavirus.

Trump’s pronouncement came amid sustained criticism of his failure to prepare for the epidemic, which has infected more than 600,000 people and killed more than 24,000 inside his country. The US is the worst affected country in the world in terms of infection numbers. On Wednesday it was reported that $1,200 relief cheques for as many as 70 million people could be delayed for several days because President Trump wanted his name printed on them.

According to Vox media, President Donald Trump’s failure to respond to the coronavirus pandemic didn’t begin with the administration’s inability to send out the millions of test kits and the protective medical gear for health care workers that experts say are needed to tackle the crisis. It didn’t start with President Trump’s bungled messaging downplaying the crisis even as it’s worsened, nor with his mid-March insistence that social distancing measures could be lifted by Easter (he later backpedaled).

President Tump’s failure to protect the US public began in April 2018 — more than a year and a half before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Trump administration began dismantling the team in charge of pandemic response, firing its leadership and disbanding the team in spring 2018. The cuts, coupled with the administration’s repeated calls to cut the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health agencies, made it clear that the Trump administration wasn’t prioritizing the response to disease outbreaks. That lack of attention to preparedness, experts say, helps explain why the Trump administration has consistently botched its response to the coronavirus pandemic (lack of preparedness is also a learning for us in Ontario).

 It appears President Trump is following his familiar playbook: finding others to blame amid his own handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has included calling it the “Chinese virus”, the previous Obama administration and taking aim at state governors.

Take action – One million people have signed the petition: "We condemn President Trump’s decision to suspend funding to the World Health Organization, and urgently call on you to ensure the WHO, and all other international organizations leading the response to this pandemic, are properly funded, and any vaccine or treatment is developed and distributed in a fair and equitable manner. This virus affects us all and we’re in this fight together. We must meet this common threat with cooperation, and our common humanity must shine through in our response." To add your name, go here.