President Donald Trump announced on Friday that he’s “terminating” the US’s relationship with the World Health Organization over what he alleges is its faulty response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization,” Trump said during an appearance in the Rose Garden on Friday, adding that the US will be “redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs.”
During his brief announcement, Trump claimed that China pressured the WHO to “mislead the world” when the coronavirus was initially discovered in Wuhan. He argued that “China has total control over the World Health Organization.”
Trump’s decision to cut ties with the WHO is “impulsive, punitive move that will ultimately hurt American standing and influence in global health policy,” Dr. Jack Chow, a US ambassador for global HIV/AIDS during President George W. Bush’s administration who also previously served as a WHO assistant director-general, told Insider on Friday.
“The US withdrawal from WHO will disrupt its operations worldwide and put the status and roles of the American scientists and doctors working there into a limbo,” Chow said. “As the US is a preeminent contributor to critical health programs ranging from HIV/AIDS treatment to polio eradication, Trump’s decision will provoke a critical question: will other countries and NGO’s seek to fill in what America has left behind at WHO, or will WHO be left to work at a debilitated level?”
The WHO plays a crucial role in assisting and advising developing countries on public health crises. Along these lines, experts have repeatedly warned that undermining the UN’s health agency could exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic by weakening its ability to assist countries with a lack of resources.
“In the history of global health diplomacy, Trump has cast asunder the longstanding progression of American partnerships with other countries to create a safer world through health,” Chow said. “Amid the incessant drive of COVID-19 into poorer countries with weak health systems, WHO may have to triage which countries they can help the most, but leaving behind gaps of assistance among many others.”
“If we throw a punch at WHO, we’re just going to end up connecting with our own jaw here, because it will make it harder to stop the outbreak globally and that is bad for our own interests,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who oversaw the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID, told Insider after Trump announced plans to cut funding to the WHO in April.
Trump has repeatedly accused the WHO of being too China-centric, bashing the organization for praising Beijing’s transparency in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak (the virus originated in Wuhan, China). But the president also praised China for its transparency in late January , and praised the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis multiple times throughout February.
As coronavirus began to spread at scale in the US, Trump shifted to blaming China for the pandemic and began to criticize the WHO in the process.
Critics of Trump have said that the president has made the WHO a scapegoat in an attempt to deflect from his own failures regarding the coronavirus pandemic, particularly as the US is the epicenter of the crisis with the most reported cases and confirmed fatalities.
“WHO is a pretty convenient scapegoat because they can’t fight back,” Konyndyk said last month. “They can’t and don’t criticize their member states. If the US is lobbing accusations at them, they kind of just have to sit there and take it, just by design. It’s a politically convenient scapegoat for the White House, but on the merits it’s ridiculous to think they’re somehow responsible for the slow US response.”
Though experts like Konyndyk have said the WHO is not perfect and has room for improvement, it’s widely agreed that the US benefits from its relationship with the global health agency.
“We helped create @WHO. We are part of it. It is part of the world. Turning our back on WHO makes us and the world less safe,” Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted after Trump’s announcement on Friday.