What US funding cut means for WHO’s fight against coronavirus

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Concerns have been raised over the World Health Organization's (WHO) future after US President Donald Trump announced a funding cut for the body amid the coronavirus pandemic. WHO is the leading United Nations body dealing with health issues, including the fight against the deadly coronavirus which has now infected more than two million people and…

Concerns have been raised over the World Health Organization’s (WHO) future after US President Donald Trump announced a funding cut for the body amid the coronavirus pandemic.

WHO is the leading United Nations body dealing with health issues, including the fight against the deadly coronavirus which has now infected more than two million people and killed more than 128,000 people worldwide.

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With Trump’s decision on Tuesday, several WHO programmes, including emergency mitigation of the coronavirus, are now in danger of being set aside, as hundreds of millions of dollars in funding dry up.

While international organisations and the private sector contribute to its budget, WHO relies mostly on donor countries to function.

In the 2018-19 WHO budget, the US contributed 15 percent of the international body’s $4.4bn budget – the most from a single donor country.

While announcing his decision, Trump accused the WHO of promoting China’s “disinformation” about the virus that likely led to a wider outbreak, including in the US.

In response, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference on Wednesday that he regretted the decision but called on world unity to fight the new coronavirus pandemic.

“The USA has been a long-standing and generous friend of the WHO and we hope it will continue to be so,” he said, adding that WHO was still assessing the impact and would “try to fill any gaps with partners”.

For 2020-21, WHO has allotted almost $4.8bn for its health programmes, including fighting malaria, eradicating polio as well as special research and preparation for possible health outbreaks.

Trump’s announcement could mean that as much as $720m worth of WHO programmes could go unfunded this year and the next, including efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

According to a UN report, as of March 2020, the US also has an outstanding contribution of around $99m to the WHO from 2019 and the first three months of this year.

‘Bad news for the world’

The latest WHO budget was finalised almost seven months before the first reported cases of the coronavirus emerged in China, which contributed about 10 percent of the international body’s budget.

Dr Wang Linfa, an infectious disease expert at Duke-National University of Singapore (NUS), told Al Jazeera that Trump’s decision to cut WHO funding “is definitely very bad news for the world”.

Tedros - Xi Jinping

A US public health expert said that WHO’s Tedros is caught in a geopolitical struggle between Washington and Beijing [File: Naohiko Hatta/Reuters]

In late January, Wang had warned that the first two weeks of February were “very, very crucial” in determining the spread of COVID-19, the infection caused by the new coronavirus, outside China, and also how other countries carry out measures to stop the disease from spreading.

On Wednesday, Wang said that Trump’s decision would not only hurt other countries, but also the US.

“I do hope the decision will be reversed soon.”

‘Time for unity’

But UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres came to the WHO’s defence, saying on Tuesday that it was “not the time” to be reducing funds to the WHO or any other organisation fighting the pandemic.

“Now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences,” Guterres said in a statement.

WHO’s Tedros did said in a social media post on Wednesday that the organisation’s “singular focus is on working to serve all people to save lives” and stop the pandemic.

Tedros also re-posted on social media a statement from well-known American epidemiologist, Dr Larry Brilliant, who said that there is “a very political campaign” against the WHO chief.

WHO criticism

Criticism of Tedros, however, has not come from Trump alone.

In March, Taiwan accused the WHO of foot-dragging in response to the coronavirus epidemic, and for failing to communicate Taipei’s early warning regarding a possible human-to-human transmission of COVID-19.

A Foreign Policy article published in early April also called the WHO of being China’s “coronavirus accomplice”, while Rich Lowry, editor of the US magazine National Review, wrote that while Trump “is always inclined to shift blame”, the WHO and China are at the “centre of this international catastrophe”.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press report, published on Wednesday, said Beijing failed to warn the public of the impending outbreak for days, allowing the wider spread of the disease.

Nevertheless, Lawrence Gostin, a public health policy expert at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, denounced Trump’s decision to hold the WHO funding, adding that the president is also looking to “shift the blame” as the pandemic is devastating the US. 

As of Wednesday, there were more than 609,000 people infected in the US, and more than 28,300 have died.

China, Beijing

Government workers stand outside a blue tent used to coordinate transportation of travellers from Wuhan to designated quarantine sites in Beijing on April 15 [Sam McNeil/AP]

A New York Times article published on Saturday revealed that Trump repeatedly ignored warnings of an incoming pandemic, and the lack of planning in his administration led to the high infections and deaths.

“I think it’s intended to shift the blame from the US to China and the WHO. But the blame can’t be shifted,” Gostin told Al Jazeera.

Gostin, who also serves as the WHO director for public health and human rights, said Tedros is caught in the middle of a “power struggle between China and the US”, affecting not just the fight against COVID-19, but also other deadly diseases.

“How sad to see that President Trump thinks that the WHO should take sides. There are no sides in the pandemic. We are all in this together.”

With additional reporting by Ted Regencia

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