Trump threatens permanent freeze on WHO funding

Trump tells WHO chief he will reconsider US membership unless health agency demonstrates independence from China.

President Donald Trump who has threatened to halt funding to the World Health Organization speaks during a roundtable in the State Dining Room of the White House on May 18, 2020 in Washington, DC [Doug Mills/ Pool/Getty Images/AFP]

US President Donald Trump has threatened to permanently halt funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) if it does not commit to “substantive improvements” within 30 days.

In a letter to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, Trump criticised what he said were repeated “missteps” in the global health agency’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The “only way forward for the [WHO] is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China,” Trump wrote.

“If the WHO does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the WHO permanent and reconsider our membership,” he said in the letter posted on Twitter.

Trump suspended the US’s contributions to the WHO last month, accusing it of promoting China’s “disinformation” about the coronavirus outbreak. Officials at the United Nations health agency have denied the accusations and China says it has been transparent and open.

In his letter, Trump listed what he said were examples of the WHO’s shortcomings in managing the pandemic, including ignoring early reports of the emergence of the virus.

He accused the UN body of caving in to Chinese pressure by declining to declare the new coronavirus a global health emergency in the initial days of the outbreak. He went on to criticise the WHO for praising China’s “transparency”, despite reports Beijing had punished several doctors in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, for speaking out about the viral infection in late December. 

Bitter dispute

The US and China are locked in an increasingly bitter dispute about the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 people and brought the global economy to a standstill. Critics say Trump who had earlier praised China’s response, is trying to divert attention from his handling of the pandemic in the US, which has suffered by far the highest death toll.

The WHO has now bowed to calls from most of its member states to launch an independent probe into how it managed the international response to the pandemic. The probe is expected to shed light on the origins of the virus and China’s early handling of the outbreak.

During a virtual meeting of the WHO’s annual assembly earlier on Monday, Tedros acknowledged there had been shortcomings and told the assembly he welcomed calls for a review.

“We all have lessons to learn from the pandemic. Every country and every organisation must examine its response and learn from its experience. WHO is committed to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement,” Tedros said. 

The review must encompass responsibility of “all actors in good faith”, he added. 

But he also emphasised that the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a global health emergency on January 30, its highest level of alert, at a time when there were fewer than 100 cases outside of China. In the following weeks, the WHO warned countries there was a narrowing “window of opportunity” to prevent the virus from spreading globally.

The WHO declared the outbreak to be a pandemic on March 11, after the virus had killed thousands globally and sparked large epidemics in South Korea, Italy, Iran and elsewhere.

‘Wake-up call’

The agency’s seven-member internal oversight body also issued its first report of the organisation’s pandemic response on Monday, saying the WHO had “demonstrated leadership” in handling the pandemic between January and April.

The report backed a probe into the global response, but said conducting it during the heat of the pandemic “could disrupt WHO’s ability to respond effectively”.

The panel also defended the organisation, saying “an imperfect and evolving understanding” is not unusual during the early phase of a novel disease’s emergence and, in an apparent rejoinder to Trump, said “rising politicisation of pandemic response” was hindering the effort to defeat the virus.

China’s President Xi Jinping, in a speech to the World Health Assembly on Monday, fiercely defended his country’s response to the outbreak, saying: “All along we have acted with openness and transparency and accountability.”

Xi also pledged $2bn over two years to help with the COVID-19 response and said any vaccines developed against the disease by China would be made for the public good. 

Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general, called for greater unity and solidarity, saying the COVID-19 crisis should serve as a “wake-up call”. 

“We have seen some solidarity, but very little unity, in our response to COVID-19. Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory, strategies and we are all paying a heavy price,” he said. 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies