Coronavirus: U.S. halting funding for WHO will have disastrous consequences

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Faulting the WHO for imaginary failings cannot help Mr. Trump wash his hands of many administrative failures in containing the epidemic. Moving beyond blaming and actually withholding WHO funding can have disastrous outcomes. If indeed he fervently believes that U.S has been misled, it is China that he must hold responsible for delayed alert.

At a time when the World Health Organization has been seeking at least $675 million additional funding for critical response efforts in countries most in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump has done the unthinkable. On April 14, Mr. Trump halted funding to the WHO while a review is conducted to assess its “role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus” and for “failing to adequately obtain, vet, and share information in a timely and transparent fashion”.

The decision comes a week after the Mr. Trump first threatened to put funding on hold for the global health body. At over $500 million, the U.S. is indeed the biggest contributor to the WHO, and is also the worst affected country with over 0.6 million cases over 25,000 deaths.

But halting funding at a crucial time when the pandemic is still raging will not just impact the functioning of the global body but hurt humanity as a whole. Many low- and middle-income countries that look up to the WHO for guidance and advice, activities to track and understand the spread of the virus and even for essential supplies such as tests and masks will be badly hit for no fault of theirs.

With nearly two million cases and over 1,27,000 deaths globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in scale and severity since Spanish flu.  When solidarity and unmitigated support from every member-state is necessary to win the war against the highly infectious and deadly virus, withholding funding will not be in the best interest of any country, the U.S. included. Failures due to oversight or other reasons, by WHO or member-states can always be looked into but not in the midst of a pandemic.

Contrary to what Mr. Trump claims, the WHO cannot independently investigate but can only rely on individual member-states to share vital information. There has not been one instance when the global body has been found “covering up” the epidemic in China. Rather, the WHO has been continuously urging countries to aggressively test people exhibiting symptoms and trace, quarantine and test contacts to contain the spread. It repeatedly spoke of the window of opportunity and once warned that it is narrowing.

Historically, WHO has been against travel and trade restrictions against countries experiencing outbreaks, and its position was no different when it declared COVID-19 a Public health emergency of international concern on January 30. But it did support large-scale mitigation measures adopted by China to contain the virus spread.

Faulting the WHO for imaginary failings cannot help Mr. Trump wash his hands of many administrative failures in containing the epidemic. Mr. Trump has been blaming everyone else for his shortcomings in dealing with the COVID-19. But moving beyond blaming and actually withholding WHO funding can have disastrous outcomes.

If indeed he fervently believes that U.S has been misled, it is China that he must hold responsible for delayed alert. Previously, he “greatly appreciated” China for its “transparency” and efforts to contain coronavirus and the WHO for “working hard and very smart”. Obviously, the change in line is directly linked to his attempt to hide his own failures.

Published in The Hindu on April 16, 2020