U.S. withdrawal from WHO is a lose-lose proposition for all

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The capricious decision to withdraw from WHO will have dire consequences for global public health. The departure of the U.S. will be a significant blow to the WHO in terms of loss of technical expertise and absent funding of about $450 million annually. The U.S. too stands to lose on health intelligence.

On July 6, when the number of novel coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. reached over 2.8 million and nearly 0.13 million, respectively, the U.S. officially notified the United Nations of its intention to withdraw membership from the World Health Organization. This comes after President Donald Trump announced on May 29 his decision to halt funding and pull out of the global health body.

Deflecting blame

After accusing WHO of being “China-centric” on multiple occasions, this unfortunate development is one more attempt by Mr. Trump to deflect blame for gross mismanagement of the crisis. In a May 18 letter, he officially demanded the WHO to make “major substantive improvements” in 30 days by charging that the global body “lacked independence” from China, was slow to respond to the threat and had “repeatedly made inaccurate or misleading claims” about the virus.

While Mr. Trump also accused the WHO of “consistently ignoring credible reports” of the virus spreading in December, the revised timeline on the WHO website clearly suggests that the WHO alerted independently alerted member States on December 31 even when China did not alert the global body. China confirmed a cluster of cases of ‘viral pneumonia of unknown cause’ on January 3 only after WHO twice reached out to the Chinese authorities on January 1-2.

No approval from Congress

Since the decision has apparently been taken without the approval of the Congress, and as the withdrawal will become effective only on July 6 next year, there is a possibility that the Congress or courts might reverse the withdrawal. Already, Democratic challenger Joe Biden has promised to revoke it if elected President. There is much at stake and unsurprisingly the Congress is already under pressure from the academia and medical associations to reject the withdrawal.

It comes as a surprise that the U.S. administration decided to go ahead with the withdrawal even as the World Health Assembly in May called for an independent inquiry into global response to the pandemic, including WHO’s performance, and the WHO to investigate the source of the virus. The resolution, however, did not condemn the WHO as Mr. Trump desired.

The capricious decision to withdraw from WHO will have dire consequences for global public health. The departure of the U.S. will be a significant blow to the WHO in terms of loss of technical expertise and absent funding of about $450 million annually.

Pandemic exposed the weaknesses in WHO

The pandemic has clearly brought to the fore several shortcomings and weaknesses in the global health body. For instance, the 2005 revision of the International Health Regulations made it mandatory for countries to notify the WHO of all events that may constitute an international public health emergency and to “respond to requests for verification of information about these events”. Yet, the WHO has limited power to ensure compliance by member States, including limitations in independently verifying member states’ official reports.

The U.S. stands to lose too

If the U.S. was majorly involved in the 2005 IHR revision, it will now have no role to play in strengthening the WHO. It will lose a seat at the table to determine the virus strain to be used for developing influenza vaccines (flu killed over 34,000 people in the US. in 2018-19), and have no access to new influenza virus samples for research.

With no more U.S. scientists embedded in the WHO in key roles, including outbreak response teams like the one that visited Wuhan, it will lose out on health intelligence that will compromise the country’s response to international disease outbreaks. In the end, none gains from a further weakened WHO. The Congress and U.S. courts have a task cut out to salvage the situation for everyone’s gain.

Published in The Hindu on July 10, 2020