On Monday night, the president released a lengthy letter with an ultimatum: “If the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvement within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent.” As for what those “major substantive improvements” are, he left that to readers’ imaginations.
It is hard to imagine a more unconvincing and counterproductive document. Threatening to leave the WHO during a global health crisis is the geopolitical equivalent of injecting Clorox as a coronavirus remedy.
Trump’s ghostwritten diatribe is as fact-challenged as you would expect. It begins with the assertion that the WHO “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal.” The Lancet’s editor in chief, Richard Horton, had to correct Trump: “The Lancet did not publish any report in early December, 2019, about a virus spreading in Wuhan. The first reports we published were from Chinese scientists on Jan 24, 2020.”
Trump’s letter isn’t all wrong in criticizing the WHO for making “claims about the coronavirus that were either grossly inaccurate or misleading,” but it contains no context. No one knew anything about covid-19 at first — it’s a new disease. The WHO was groping in the dark along with everyone else, and 17 U.S. officials at its Geneva headquarters passed its observations to Washington.
While the WHO initially relayed fallacious Chinese denials of human-to-human transmission, the organization confirmed on Jan. 20 — when there were only 222 verified cases in the world — that such transmission was, in fact, occurring. Ten days later, on Jan. 30, the WHO declared a global health emergency.
By that point, the WHO had already swung into action to fight the disease. As the New York Times notes: “On Jan. 12, Chinese scientists published the genome of the virus, and the W.H.O. asked a team in Berlin to use that information to develop a diagnostic test. Just four days later, they produced a test and the W.H.O. posted online a blueprint that any laboratory around the world could use to duplicate it.” Many countries employed the German tests. The United States chose to go it alone and fell hopelessly behind in fighting the pandemic. That’s Trump’s fault, not the WHO’s.
What makes Trump’s letter particularly risible is that he now attacks the WHO for “praising China for its alleged ‘transparency’,” when he did the same exact thing. Trump tweeted on Jan. 24: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well.” On Feb. 1, two days after the WHO declared a global health emergency, Trump told Fox News: “Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China. We have a tremendous relationship with China, which is a very positive thing.” A month later, he was still in denial, tweeting on Feb. 24: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … CDC & World Health [Organization] have been working hard and very smart.”
Now Trump demands that the WHO “demonstrate independence from China.” Yet if he pulls U.S. funding, that will make the WHO far more dependent on China. China is already rushing to fill the vacuum that the United States leaves behind. On Monday, President Xi Jinping told a WHO assembly by videoconference that China would spend $2 billion to fight the coronavirus around the world. Trump did not speak to the gathering. Declining U.S. influence was evident when the administration failed to convince the WHO to restore Taiwan to observer status, which it lost in 2016 and deserves to regain.
While the WHO is more rational and effective than the Trump administration — admittedly a low bar — it suffers from major weaknesses of its own. It is an international bureaucracy that depends on the support of its member states. The only way to make the WHO more effective is to give its secretariat (i.e., bureaucracy) greater autonomy, funding and clout, but that is the last thing Trump wants. His hallmark has been reviling “globalist” institutions and treaties that he claims infringe on sacred U.S. sovereignty. He even threatened last year to pull out of the Universal Postal Union, which coordinates international mail delivery.
Trump’s attacks on the WHO are intended to rile up his isolationist base against a bunch of foreigners (including its Ethiopian director-general) and thereby distract from nearly 100,000 dead Americans and more than 36 million unemployed. This is not about improving the WHO. It’s all about improving his own election prospects.
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