World calls Trump's funding freeze to WHO 'foolish', 'dangerous'

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U.S. President Donald Trump announces halting funding to WHO at the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Stefani Reynolds / CNP via Reuters

MANILA — World leaders and influential global health figures have raised concerns against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to freeze funding to the World Health Organization amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a tweet, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said the U.S. decision to defund WHO is “disastrous,” arguing the organization is not responsible for a president ignoring advice on COVID-19 measures. She added: “This is not time for #blamegame.”

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Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Trump’s actions are an attempt to take away attention from his lack of preparedness in the U.S.

“This is damaging, despite WHO failings, given what’s still to come with this virus,” Rudd tweeted.

Member of the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt pointed out that Trump has pulled the same tricks over and over again by blaming international organizations for his own failures. The Belgian politician said the world needs to strengthen international cooperation to be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Billionaire-philanthropist Bill Gates said Trump’s decision, taken in the middle of a global health crisis, “is as dangerous as it sounds.”

“Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever,” he tweeted.

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, called Trump’s decision “a crime against humanity,” and called on everyone to “resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity.”

Lawrence Gostin, professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and a global health law expert, said the decision “will blow back on @POTUS,” noting that other countries will fill the gap financially and politically.

“US will lose all voice & credibility in int'l relations, no influence at WHO or w/ our allies. What will the public think when he cuts $ for AIDS, polio, mental health? Shocking,” he tweeted.

Trump’s announcement on Tuesday during a press briefing came after weeks of mounting criticisms against WHO for the way it’s dealt with information coming from China on COVID-19 amid increasing reports of misinformation.

In March, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott asked Congress to investigate WHO, after he accused the organization of “promoting misinformation and helping Communist China cover up a global pandemic.” A WHO official’s refusal to address questions on Taiwan added to the fire.

In the press briefing, Trump said he is halting funding to WHO “while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”

“The world depends on the WHO to work with countries to ensure that accurate information about international health crises [is] shared in a timely manner … [and] to independently tell the world the truth about what is happening. The WHO failed in its basic duty, and must be held accountable,” he said.

Details of the funding freeze is unclear, but it’s expected to have a huge impact on WHO operations and specific global health programs. The U.S. is WHO’s top funding source for assessed and specified voluntary contributions, and a huge portion of U.S. funding to WHO goes to polio eradication efforts, access to essential health and nutrition services, and vaccine-preventable diseases, according to the latest information on WHO’s budget portal.

It could also have an impact on the WHO’s work in the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for which the U.S. is a major donor after the World Bank. WHO has not received funding for its Ebola response since December 2019.

In a press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the agency is internally assessing how the withdrawal of U.S. financial support would affect its programs and that it will aim to fill any financial gaps with other partners. He added that WHO’s member states and independent bodies will conduct a performance review of the agency’s actions following the pandemic, as is standard for any outbreak.

“When we are divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us. We are committed to serving the world’s people and to accountability for the resources with which we are entrusted,” he said. “But for now, our focus, my focus, is on stopping this virus and saving lives. … WHO is getting on with the job.”

Update, April 15, 2020: This article has been updated with comments from a WHO press conference.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.