News analysis

Trump's suspension of funding to WHO could cost lives

United States President Donald Trump speaking at a news conference at the White House in Washington on Tuesday. Experts have criticised his decision to suspend funding to the World Health Organisation, calling the move a scapegoating of the agency an
United States President Donald Trump speaking at a news conference at the White House in Washington on Tuesday. Experts have criticised his decision to suspend funding to the World Health Organisation, calling the move a scapegoating of the agency and an attempt to deflect from the US' surging infection rate and number of deaths. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

It could also damage US' reputation, be a propaganda coup for China, warn experts

US President Donald Trump's decision to suspend funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the middle of a pandemic is a misplaced and ill-timed move which undermines the agency at a crucial juncture when it most needs support, said public health experts.

And though the WHO has its flaws, suspending funding was the wrong way to address them, they added, in sharp criticisms of the President's move on Tuesday.

Mr Trump accused the WHO of "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus" on Tuesday, criticising the agency for being overly reliant on disclosures from China about the virus.

"The WHO pushed China's misinformation about the virus, saying it was not communicable and there was no need for travel bans," said Mr Trump.

The WHO had said travel restrictions would hurt the global economy, although nations were still free to impose them, which many did.

But the criticisms that the WHO is beholden to China and its resources are misplaced, said Council on Foreign Relations global health programme director Thomas Bollyky and Centre for Global Development senior policy fellow Jeremy Konyndyk in a Washington Post commentary on Tuesday.

"The deference that the organisation has shown in this pandemic is not unique to China, this virus or even current WHO leadership.

"The organisation prizes solidarity in responding to emergencies," they wrote, noting that the WHO had been similarly criticised in the past two Ebola outbreaks over its slowness to act out of deference to the affected West African nations.

This tendency to defer to countries in a crisis is a flaw to be reviewed after the pandemic, but is also due to the constraints the WHO has to operate under, they said.

"It cannot operate in member countries without their permission, and it has no power to sanction them for not following its rules.

"Accordingly, the WHO depends on cooperation from governments to compensate for its limited resources and authority," they added.

The United States is the WHO's single largest donor and main bankroller, giving it the power to hamstring the WHO.

It contributed US$893 million (S$1.27 billion), or about 15 per cent, to the global health agency's current two-year budget.

A quarter of the US' money funded polio eradication programmes around the world, while another quarter went into increasing access to essential health services and fighting vaccine-preventable diseases, according to the WHO website.

The remaining money was marked out for combating tuberculosis and HIV, boosting country health emergency preparedness, and preventing and controlling outbreaks, among other programmes and research.

Withholding funding in the middle of a pandemic could cost lives, said public health experts.

Professor Senait Fisseha, chief adviser to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, wrote on Twitter: "The WHO is the only organisation that can collect data from 194 countries, conduct analysis, put medical and scientific resources on the ground and coordinate response. This decision will cost lives!"

American Medical Association president Patrice Harris said: "Fighting a global pandemic requires international cooperation and reliance on science and data. Cutting funding to the WHO - rather than focusing on solutions - is a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world."


Georgetown University global health law professor Lawrence Gostin wrote on Twitter: "People will die because of Trump's disastrous decision to withdraw WHO funding.

"Trump's criticism of Dr Tedros is disingenuous, meant to distract from US failure to prepare for coronavirus."

He and others have called Mr Trump's move a scapegoating of the WHO in an attempt to deflect from the US' surging infection rate and number of deaths.

The WHO draws about 15 per cent of its funding from assessed contributions, which are mandatory membership fees paid by countries based on their population and wealth.

Another 35 per cent of its budget comes from voluntary contributions from governments paying above and beyond their dues, while the remaining 50 per cent comes from philanthropic foundations, non-government groups, private organisations and other intergovernmental bodies.

Although Mr Trump did not specify what funding would be halted, experts said the US could cut its voluntary contributions to the WHO. This makes up about three-quarters of the total amount it typically gives.

Pulling funding could damage the US's global reputation and be a propaganda coup for China, said experts.

"Other countries will fill the breach financially and politically. The US will lose all voice and credibility in international relations," said Prof Gostin.


Timeline of events

NEW YORK • US President Donald Trump has suspended US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO), accusing the global body of failing "in its basic duty" over its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Here is a look at what Mr Trump and the WHO have said about the coronavirus:

DEC 31, 2019 

A day after China reports a cluster of cases of pneumonia - which is later identified as the coronavirus - in Wuhan, the WHO sets up an IMST (Incident Management Support Team) across the three levels of the organisation: headquarters, regional headquarters and country level.

JAN 5 

The WHO publishes its first ever Disease Outbreak News on the new virus. It contains a risk assessment and advice, and reports on what China had told the organisation about the status of patients and the public health response.

JAN 22 

Mr Trump says the virus does not pose a threat to the United States. "We have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine."

JAN 29

The leaders of the WHO praise China and its leader, President Xi Jinping, for their response to the ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus. "Its (China's) actions actually helped prevent the spread of coronavirus to other countries," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said of China. He also said he was "very impressed and encouraged by the President's detailed knowledge of the outbreak".

The Trump administration declares a public health emergency.

JAN 31 

The United States announces restrictions on travellers from China.

FEB 26

Mr Trump appoints Vice-President Mike Pence to take charge of the nation's response to the virus.


The WHO makes the assessment that the Covid-19 outbreak can be characterised as a pandemic.


The US Department of State advises US citizens to avoid all international travel.


Taiwan accuses the WHO of failing to communicate an early warning about transmission of the coronavirus between humans.

The US begins barring entry to foreign nationals who had been in 28 European countries within the past 14 days.


The House and Senate pass a US$2.2 trillion (S$3.1 trillion) emergency spending Bill, the largest in US history. It is then signed by Mr Trump.


The US accuses the WHO of putting politics first by ignoring Taiwan's warnings over China's coronavirus outbreak.


The WHO publicly rejects Taiwan's claim that it ignored the early warning about the virus.


Mr Trump instructs his administration to halt funding to the WHO. 


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2020, with the headline 'Trump's suspension of funding to WHO could cost lives'. Print Edition | Subscribe