The head of the World Health Organization on Wednesday lamented the U.S. decision to halt funding for the U.N. agency, promising a review of its decisions while sidestepping President Donald Trump’s complaints about its alleged mismanagement, cover-up and missteps.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was on the defensive after Trump announced a halt to U.S. funding that has totaled nearly a half-billion dollars annually in recent years. Trump claimed the WHO had parroted Chinese assurances about how the virus is spread, failed to obtain virus samples from China, and made a “disastrous decision” to oppose travel restrictions as the outbreak spread.
Countries and health experts around the world expressed alarm at Trump’s move and warned it could jeopardize efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Philanthropists like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg joined European and African leaders and health experts who lined up behind the WHO or insisted the U.S. shouldn’t cut off funding at such a critical time.
While Trump pointed to a U.S. investigation of the U.N. agency, Tedros stopped short of addressing his complaints directly and said the WHO’s performance in handling the outbreak would be reviewed as part of a “usual process” to ensure transparency and accountability.
“We regret the decision of the president of the United States to order a halt in funding to the World Health Organization,” Tedros said. “WHO is reviewing the impact on our work of any withdrawal of U.S. funding and will work with our partners to fill any financial gaps we face.”
“No doubt, areas for improvement will be identified and there will be lessons for all of us to learn,” he added. “But for now, our focus – my focus – is on stopping this virus and saving lives.”
The exact fallout from a halt in U.S. funding was far from clear.
The WHO runs on biennial budgets, and U.S. fundigeng comes in two main forms — about three-fourths of it through “voluntary” contributions and one-fourth through “assessed” contributions, which are a bit like regular dues. The U.S. already contributed at least $15 million to a $675 million emergency fund set up by the WHO to help pay for the initial coronavirus response through April.
“Trump has a mercurial reputation. So he sort of promises death and destruction and then it doesn’t necessarily happen,” said Gian Luca Burci, a former legal counsel for WHO who now teaches at Geneva’s Graduate Institute. “I think it will become more clear in the next few weeks.”
He noted WHO’s tricky task of uniting opposing constituencies: China and the U.S. have been at odds on a number of issues.
“Maybe Tedros went too far,” he said. “But you can see also some of the reasons why he wanted to secure China’s cooperation.”
Trump has repeatedly labelled COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and criticized the agency for being too lenient on China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged late last year.
Outside experts have questioned China’s reported infections and deaths from the virus, calling them way too low and unreliable. An investigation by The Associated Press has found that a six-day delay between when Chinese officials learnt about the virus and when they warned the public allowed the outbreak to blossom into an enormous public health disaster.
The WHO has been particularly effusive in its praise for China, calling on other countries to emulate its approach and repeatedly praising its transparency.
Tedros has also heaped compliments on Trump, praising his “great job” in responding to the outbreak last month.
The European Union on Wednesday said Trump has “no reason” to freeze WHO funding at this critical stage and called for measures to promote unity instead of division.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the country is “seriously concerned” about the U.S. decision.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who this week emerged from intensive care after contracting the virus, declined to criticize either China or Trump.
“The U.K. has no plans to stop funding the WHO, which has an important role to play in leading the global health response,” James Slack said.
Political fault lines emerged in the U.S., with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, saying the “dangerous, illegal” decision to halt funding “will be swiftly challenged.” Sen. Lindsay Graham, a Republican ally of Trump, insisted that “we cannot afford China apologists running the WHO.”
Aid workers in developing countries worried they might be hit hardest.
“Trump’s decision … is pulling the rug out from under our feet at a pivotal moment. It will impact the humanitarian community as a whole,” said Tom Peyre-Costa, regional media adviser for Central and West Africa for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “It defies logic at the height of a global pandemic and will lead to many more deaths.”
On Twitter, Bill Gates — whose foundation was the agency’s second-largest donor for its latest two-year budget, contributing over $530 million — wrote that stopping funding for the WHO during a world health crisis “is as dangerous as it sounds.”
Worldwide, the pandemic has infected over 2 million people and killed over 128,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Some global health academics said Trump’s attacks might actually strengthen WHO credibility.
“If Trump was making a great success of the pandemic response in the U.S., if there were minimal cases and deaths there, that might be different,” said Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “But things are getting worse and that reinforces the need for WHO.”