The US is facing a barrage of international criticism after President Donald Trump announced the suspension of US funding of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 14 April.
Trump accused the WHO of mismanaging and covering up the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus after it was first detected in Wuhan, China, in early January. “The WHO failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said.
“The American people deserve better from the WHO, and no more funding will be provided until its mismanagement, cover-ups and failures can be investigated,” the White House stated the following day.
In response, Microsoft founder Bill Gates tweeted that the US suspension of WHO funding was a “dangerous” move. Gates’s charity the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest WHO funders and second only to the US.
The US contributes some 15 per cent of the UN organisation’s funding, and last year it gave the WHO $450 million.
The UK criticised Trump’s decision, announcing it would continue to fund the WHO. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that continued funding of an organisation suffering from a “shortage in supplies” was a good investment at this time.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said this “is not the right time” to cut WHO funding, and Josep Borrell, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs, said Trump’s move was unjustified because the WHO was now needed more than ever.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the WHO had “provided credible advice,” while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed his “understanding” of the US decision, but said that the WHO “is also doing an important job.”
The US move would “restrict international cooperation” in combating the coronavirus, said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian. The American Medical Association said the decision was “dangerous and a step in the wrong direction.”
Ethiopian Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted that “there is no time to waste. The WHO’s singular focus is on working to serve all people to save lives and stop the Covid-19 pandemic.”
In explaining his decision, Trump said the WHO was “very China-centric.”
“Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China’s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death,” Trump said. “Instead, the WHO willingly took China’s assurances at face value.”
But it was not only the WHO that defended China’s practices. Trump did too when Beijing enforced a lockdown on Wuhan following what he called “the cover-up of the spread of the pandemic in Wuhan by Chinese officials who also punished those who tried to warn against it.”
China did not allow WHO experts to visit Wuhan before 10 February, when more than 40,000 infections had already been recorded. The WHO, according to Trump, had not revealed solid evidence that the virus could spread between humans. However, towards the end of January the WHO released an official statement declaring the virus had been transmitted between humans in Wuhan.
The UN body was also accused of siding with China when a senior WHO official refused to discuss Taiwan’s measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. China does not recognise Taiwan, and it has exerted pressure to prevent the island being recognised by other countries.
It appears that the WHO could be the victim of a conflict between Washington and Beijing, much in the way in which the UN cultural organisation UNESCO was earlier the victim of Cold War conflicts between the US and former Soviet Union.
In 1983, former US president Ronald Regan announced the US withdrawal from UNESCO during the tenure of Senegalese director-general Amadou Mahtar M’Bow over UNESCO’s alleged siding with the Soviet Union.
In both of these incidents, the heads of the UN organisations concerned have been Africans and the US has been under Republican Party administrations accusing the UN bodies of taking sides with ideological or economic competitors of the US.
The Trump administration has been particularly hostile towards the UN. The recent decision to suspend US funding for the WHO is the third directed at the UN after Washington suspended funding for the UN Palestinian refugee relief organisation UNRWA and then withdrew from UNESCO in 2017 after it accused it of being biased against Israel.
Some observers believe that UNESCO member states were in favour of French candidate Audrey Azoulay of Moroccan Jewish descent in order to lure back Washington and its financial contributions during the appointment of a new director-general in 2017.
Regarding UNRWA, there seems to be little hope of retrieving US funding for this UN agency before Trump ends his term in office.
The current US investigation into the Chinese response to the coronavirus could be followed by condemnation of the WHO, putting the UN body in a difficult position for years to come despite an annual budget of over $5 billion.
Much of the US contribution to United Nations agencies has been directed towards the UNRWA, the children’s agency UNICEF, the WHO, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and to a lesser degree the United Nations Population Fund and the World Food Programme.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly