Coronavirus: China blasts Trump’s move to pull WHO funding, pledges support

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that the US decision would weaken the WHO’s capabilities and undermine international cooperation. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - China has criticised United States President Donald Trump's move to temporarily halt funding to the World Health Organisation, and pledged to support the global health body.

Mr Trump on Tuesday (April 14) said he ordered the move against the WHO because it took China's claims about the coronavirus "at face value" and failed to share information about the pandemic as it spread.

China has "serious concerns" about the decision and called on the US to fulfil its responsibilities, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.

"This US decision will weaken the WHO's capabilities and undermine international cooperation," he said, adding: "China will as always support the WHO in playing an important role in international public health and global anti-epidemic response."

The move to limit support to the WHO in the midst of a global pandemic is unprecedented, and attracted criticism from health policy experts as well as billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates.

Yet as domestic criticism of the Trump administration's response increased and the US became the epicentre of the outbreak, many of the President's supporters have pointed to the WHO for making early mistakes they say worsened the crisis.

"The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable," Mr Trump said at a White House press conference. "The outbreak could have been contained at its source" if the organisation had correctly responded early on, he added.

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that it obtained internal documents showing Chinese officials waited six days in January before Chinese President Xi Jinping warned the public of the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak.

The delay after China became aware of the dangers of what is now known as Covid-19 allowed millions of people to travel from the epicentre in the city of Wuhan elsewhere in the country and the world, the report said.

Accusations 'unfair'

While China's Mr Zhao said he hadn't seen the report, he added that Beijing updated the WHO in a "timely" manner, and called accusations that the government wasn't transparent "unfair".

The WHO has been a conduit for tension between the US and China for months, with WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus being singled out for blame by allies of the President for being too deferential to Beijing. Representatives for the WHO did not respond to requests for comment.

Remote video URL

It is unclear when any halt in payments would take effect or how much authority Mr Trump has to suspend disbursements, which are authorised by Congress. The US has contributed US$893 million (S$1.27 billion) to the WHO's operations during its current two-year funding cycle, according to the organisation. Administration officials signalled the suspension would be for 60 days.

Responding to Mr Trump's decision on Tuesday, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the chance to investigate how the disease spread around the world would come later.

"As it is not that time, it also not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organisation or any other humanitarian organisation in the fight against the virus," he said. "As I have said before, now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences."

Mr Gates, a billionaire philanthropist and the co-founder of Microsoft Corp, warned in a tweet that cutting off funds for the WHO "is as dangerous as it sounds".

The US contributes nearly a quarter of all member state dues for the WHO. That pool of funds - although a small proportion of the overall budget - is used as the organisation's operating budget to run daily operations, said Prof Adam Kamradt-Scott, an associate professor of international security at the University of Sydney who has written about the politics of pandemic preparedness.

The rest of the funding, called voluntary contributions, come from member states and non-profits, and are tailored to specific global health programmes.

'Extraordinarily bad decision'

Prof Kamradt-Scott warned that Mr Trump could "bankrupt the organisation" if the US pulls both member dues and voluntary contributions, adding that the move would undo decades of working and leading the world in fighting diseases. The move could impact global health more broadly beyond the WHO, he added.

"We now have a situation in which the US is vacating a leadership role in the middle of the crisis," Prof Kamradt-Scott said. "Nature abhors a vacuum. Politics abhors a vacuum even more."

Early on after the news of the virus broke, the US had pushed to have its own experts included in a WHO-led delegation to China. The health group repeatedly praised the Chinese response to the crisis, and later drew questions about whether it acted too slowly in declaring a pandemic.

Mr Trump on Tuesday pointed to a WHO statement in late January opposing travel bans as a response to the coronavirus outbreak. The President instituted travel restrictions on China in late January, later extending it to the European Union and Britain. Around the same time, he also praised China's "efforts and transparency" in a tweet.

"One of the most dangerous and costly decisions from the WHO was its disastrous decision to oppose travel restrictions from China and other nations," Mr Trump said on Tuesday. "Had other nations likewise suspended travel from China, countless more lives would have been saved."

Dr Ashish Jha, the director of Harvard University's Global Health Institute, called Mr Trump's move "an extraordinarily bad decision".

One person who reached out to Mr Trump ahead of his announcement was the UN secretary-general. Mr Guterres, through the US envoy to the UN, acknowledged WHO missteps in the pandemic, but argued that now is not the time to be pointing fingers.

Some aides to the President have argued that cuts to the WHO now could be counterproductive because it is one of the few agencies with access to some of the world's most vulnerable populations in Yemen, Libya and Syria, which could all be hit hard by the virus, according to one person.

Budget cuts

The President has sought in the past to cut US contributions to the WHO, even before the virus outbreak. In its proposed 2021 budget, the administration called for reducing voluntary contributions to the WHO by more than half, to about US$58 million.

While Mr Trump criticised WHO reliance on Chinese information in the early day of the crisis, he repeatedly praised China and its president, Mr Xi Jinping, for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak in January and February. But he said last Friday that the WHO is "very, very China-centric. China always seems to get the better of the argument, and I don't like that".

House Democrats denounced Mr Trump's decision to withhold congressionally appropriated funds from the WHO in the middle of a pandemic. They said that he lacks the legal authority to do so and, like his withholding of aid to Ukraine, it would be a violation of the law.

"In a desperate attempt to deflect blame, President Trump is threatening to violate the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment," House Appropriations Committee spokesman Evan Hollander said in a statement. "The president does not have the unilateral authority to withhold the United States' assessed contribution to the World Health Organisation."

Democratic Representative Don Beyer of Virginia called Mr Trump's action "so stupid and so dangerous".

"The World Health Organisation leads and coordinates the fight against pandemics. It's what they do," Mr Beyer wrote on Twitter. "You don't stop firefighters from doing their jobs during a five-alarm fire."

Mr Trump is likely to get full support from Republicans in Congress. Several GOP lawmakers, such as Senators Martha McSally of Arizona and Rick Scott of Florida, have accused WHO of participating in alleged efforts by China to cover up or minimise the extent of the outbreak. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina pledged to cut funding in the next appropriations bill.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.