At a White House briefing, Mr. Trump declared, “We’re going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO. We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it.” Then he said, “We’re going to look at it.” He said on Twitter, “The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) declared the WHO “has become a political puppet of the Chinese government” and called for an investigation.
The United States has provided the WHO $893 million over the agency’s current two-year funding period, or 14.67 percent of its total funding. The WHO is constantly strapped for support, and its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, appealed to nations for more at the outset of the pandemic. Congress probably will not agree with Mr. Trump to hold back U.S. aid, but the president’s threat is counterproductive and diversionary.
The WHO seriously erred at the outset of the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, in which 11,310 people were killed. Reexaminations of its performance then led to a greater emphasis on rapid response to outbreaks, among other issues. The agency did better in Congo’s Ebola crisis, which was complicated by violence and insecurity on the ground. When the coronavirus first surfaced, from December to late January, China misled its people and the world about the outbreak. In early comments, the director-general and other WHO officials were excessively positive about China’s performance. They should have been more cautious. The agency was probably attempting to protect its access to China, no small matter given how Beijing attempted to conceal the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. The WHO has also mistakenly treated Taiwan poorly to stay in China’s good graces. All of these issues can and should be addressed in subsequent investigations.
But the WHO has been a mainstay of the global response, fielding diagnostic tests and providing information to countries that did not have them. The agency regularly is in the trenches fighting disease, including AIDS, malaria, measles and tuberculosis. The WHO’s work around the world also helps protect Americans from these scourges, and it would make sense after the pandemic to explore how global public health efforts can be expanded and strengthened. It certainly makes no sense to undermine the people who are helping the world navigate this storm.