News analysis

Trump's suspension of WHO funds could undermine fight against Covid-19, say critics

PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - United States 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 while 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 (April 14).

Mr Trump accused the WHO of "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus" at his daily press conference on Tuesday, criticising the agency for overly relying on disclosures from China about the coronavirus.

"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 US is the WHO's single largest donor and main bankroller, giving it the power to hamstring the WHO.

It contributed US$893 million (S$1.26 billion), or about 15 per cent, to the global health agency's current two-year budget.

A quarter of America's money funded polio eradication programmes around the world, while another quarter went to 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 in a statement: "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 America's 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 America'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.

Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Brett Schaefer, who specialises in international regulatory affairs, said America's plans to counter Chinese disinformation abroad would be immediately overshadowed by the announcement.

"China would immediately exploit the announcement to expand its misinformation campaign, cement its influence in the WHO, and portray the US as uninterested in helping other countries deal with Covid-19," he wrote in a commentary in The Daily Signal, a conservative news site.

Mr Schaefer said that threatening to withhold future funds would be more effective, adding: "Instead of ending funding during the current crisis, the US should condition future funding to specific actions by the WHO."