President Donald Trump’s response to the spread of the coronavirus will be dissected and debated for decades to come. Making a scapegoat of the World Health Organization (WHO) during a global pandemic already stands out as one of his worst decisions.
In the midst of the deadliest outbreak in a century, the president has suspended U.S. contributions to the group most likely to stand sentinel on where, how fast and how lethally COVID-19 is spreading across the 195 nations in the world. A traveling virus heeds no borders.
Trump’s dumbfounding resolve to starve the WHO of money, pending further review, appears to be a product of blame-shifting that will cost countless lives, at home and abroad. The president has falsely accused WHO officials of missing the severity and extent of the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak in China late last year.
“Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China’s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death,” Trump said. “Instead, the WHO willingly took China’s assurances to face value.”
The facts show otherwise. WHO publicly sounded the alarm of the Chinese epidemic on Jan. 5.
Fresh reporting shows that more than a dozen U.S. physicians, researchers and health experts were transmitting real-time information about the Chinese epidemic to the White House as early as late last year. Trump’s allegation of a WHO coverup is all the more preposterous considering that the president himself spent weeks praising Beijing’s handling of the crisis.
From Jan. 22 to Feb. 29, Trump on 15 occasions gave public tribute to the Chinese for their response to the spread of COVID-19, according to Politico.
“China seems to be making tremendous progress,” Trump said in late February. “Their numbers are way down. … I think our relationship with China is very good. We just did a big trade deal. We’re starting on another trade deal with China — a very big one. And we’ve been working very closely. They’ve been talking to our people, we’ve been talking to their people, having to do with the virus.”
A 72-year-old institution, the WHO first was created to combat the spread of malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases in the industrial and developing world. It has no power to direct public health decisions, but acts as a sort of Central Intelligence Agency standing guard — and offering advice and aid — when epidemics emerge.
The U.S. contributes more than any other country, about 20% of WHO’s $2.4 billion annual budget.
To be sure, the WHO’s performance in the face of epidemics has not always been perfect.
During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, it failed to act on information, was slow to challenge government coverups and declared a public health emergency after the epidemic was well underway.
But WHO’s sounding an emergency in the Chinese outbreak of the coronavirus merits no reproach.
The Trump administration should wrap up its “review” of the WHO and assure that more financial aid will be on the way. This is no time to close the eyes and cover the ears of a world watchdog over deadly disease.