Trump threatens permanent freeze of WHO funding

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US President Donald Trump threatened on Monday to permanently halt funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) if it did not commit to improvements within 30 days, and to reconsider the membership of the United States in the body.
US President Donald Trump holds a meeting at the White House in Washington on May 18, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - US President Donald Trump threatened on Monday (May 18) to permanently halt funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO) if it did not commit to improvements within 30 days, and to reconsider the membership of the United States in the body.

Mr Trump suspended US contributions to the WHO last month, accusing it of promoting China's "disinformation" about the coronavirus outbreak, although WHO officials denied the accusation and China said it was transparent and open.

"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," Mr Trump told its chief, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a letter posted on Twitter.

Earlier, Mr Trump called WHO "puppet of China" and had "done a very sad job" in its handling of the coronavirus.

"The United States pays them US$450 million (S$638.45 million) a year; China pays them US$38 million a year. And they're a puppet of China. They're China-centric, to put it nicer, but they're a puppet of China," Mr Trump told reporters at a White House event.

Mr Trump has already suspended US funding for the WHO after accusing it of being too China-centric, and at the same time led international criticism of Beijing's perceived lack of transparency in the early stages of the crisis.

In his letter, Mr Trump said the only way forward for the body was if it could demonstrate independence from China, adding that his administration had already started reform discussions with Dr Tedros.

China hit back on Tuesday with its foreign ministry spokesman, Mr Zhao Lijian, saying the letter was slanderous.

"The US leadership's open letter is filled with phrases of suggestions, maybes, and potentialities, and is trying to mislead the public through this specious method, to achieve the goal of smearing and slandering China's efforts in epidemic prevention and to shift responsibility in its own incompetence in handling the epidemic," Mr Zhao told a regular briefing.

Mr Zhao said the US decision to stop contributing to the WHO was a violation of its international obligations.

Geneva-based WHO, a UN specialised agency, is leading a global initiative to develop safe and effective vaccines, tests and drugs to prevent, diagnose and treat Covid-19.

More than 4.75 million people have been reported to have been infected globally and 314,414 have died, according to a Reuters tally.

The United States contributed more than US$400 million to the WHO in 2019, or roughly 15 per cent of the organisation's budget.

And this year, Washington has already paid the WHO about US$58 million, senior Trump administration officials said last month, half of what it is required to pay for 2020 - known as an assessed contribution.

The United States traditionally provides several hundred million dollars annually in voluntary funding tied to specific WHO programmes like polio eradication, vaccine-preventable disease, HIV and hepatitis, tuberculosis, and maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health.

It was not clear how much voluntary funding the United States had already provided for WHO programmes in 2020.

On Monday, the WHO said an independent review of the global virus response would begin as soon as possible and it received backing and a hefty pledge of funds from China, in the spotlight as the origin of the pandemic.

Dr Tedros acknowledged there had been shortcomings and told the virtual World Health Assembly he welcomed calls for a review.

"I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment to review experience gained and lessons learned, and to make recommendations to improve national and global pandemic preparedness and response," he said.

"But one thing is abundantly clear. The world must never be the same. We do not need a review to tell us that we must all do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again," Dr Tedros said.

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