Facing a Pandemic Alone: Trump’s Battle With the World Health Organisation
Ian Franks
6 Jun

The United States is on the outside now. Official White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian.

A week is a long time in politics.

In the last five months, the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis has proven that. It’s been difficult to keep up with the totals of confirmed infections and deaths.

In the U.S., President Trump has altered his view so many times, it’s difficult to believe he actually holds one.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of this has been his attitude towards China. In January, Trump Tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciate their efforts and transparency. It will work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Just over three months later, the rhetoric had changed. By 3 May, China was no longer appreciated and definitely not transparent, according to Trump. Speaking at a Fox News town hall, he said: “My opinion is [China] made a mistake. They tried to cover it, they tried to put it out. It’s like a fire. […] They couldn’t put out the fire.”

Accusations, denials, counter-accusations and counter-denials have since flown between Washington and Beijing, to little or no effect.

Now, the president has reached a new and higher level of incompetence. At first, he criticised the World Health Organization (WHO), alleging that the official body, part of the United Nations, is favouring China in the dispute.

On 18 May, Trump sent a letter to the director-general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. It included his comments on what he sees as the organisation’s bias towards China, with demands of improvements within 30 days.

Yet, only 11 days later, he told members of the press at the White House that the U.S. will be terminating its relationship with the WHO, instead funding other worldwide public health needs.

Against a backdrop of cherry blossom, President Trump holds a coronavirus news conference. Official White House photo by Tia Dufour.

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Questions swirled but, because the exact nature of the wanted reforms and any reply have not been made public, it’s a matter of guesswork.

To wait only 11 of the 30 days offered in his ultimatum can only mean a couple of things. The most likely, in my view, is that the WHO rejected Trump’s demands.

News of his decision to withdraw from membership and cease funding to the organisation has stirred passionate opposition.

Health experts and foreign leaders are warning that the president's decision is unsafe, especially during the current pandemic. NPR reported that Dr Howard Koh, former assistant secretary for health under the Obama administration, said: “This decision is really so short-sighted and ill-advised, and all it does is put American lives at risk.”

As well as the expected pushback from Democrats, voices have been raised by members of Trump’s own party. Republican Senator and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander, issued a statement in strong disagreement with the president’s decision.

Dr Tom Frieden, formerly head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added to the chorus of criticism. He said: "The United States helped create the World Health Organization. And we're turning our back on it — we're turning our back on the world. That makes us less safe, it makes the world less safe."

I have to agree. I can’t see any benefit for the WHO in helping China and, even if it turns out to be true, it’s surely a problem that would be easier for the U.S. to fix from the inside. 

As it stands, the U.S. is now simple looking on, with reduced sway on global public health matters.

Donald Trump’s erratic and potentially dangerous decision is using the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a perceived nut.

OPINION
Facing a Pandemic Alone: Trump’s Battle With the World Health Organisation
Ian Franks
6 Jun

The United States is on the outside now. Official White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian.

A week is a long time in politics.

In the last five months, the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis has proven that. It’s been difficult to keep up with the totals of confirmed infections and deaths.

In the U.S., President Trump has altered his view so many times, it’s difficult to believe he actually holds one.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of this has been his attitude towards China. In January, Trump Tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciate their efforts and transparency. It will work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Just over three months later, the rhetoric had changed. By 3 May, China was no longer appreciated and definitely not transparent, according to Trump. Speaking at a Fox News town hall, he said: “My opinion is [China] made a mistake. They tried to cover it, they tried to put it out. It’s like a fire. […] They couldn’t put out the fire.”

Accusations, denials, counter-accusations and counter-denials have since flown between Washington and Beijing, to little or no effect.

Now, the president has reached a new and higher level of incompetence. At first, he criticised the World Health Organization (WHO), alleging that the official body, part of the United Nations, is favouring China in the dispute.

On 18 May, Trump sent a letter to the director-general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. It included his comments on what he sees as the organisation’s bias towards China, with demands of improvements within 30 days.

Yet, only 11 days later, he told members of the press at the White House that the U.S. will be terminating its relationship with the WHO, instead funding other worldwide public health needs.

Against a backdrop of cherry blossom, President Trump holds a coronavirus news conference. Official White House photo by Tia Dufour.

Get The Locus sent straight to your inbox
Thanks for subscribing to The Locus!
Something went wrong. Sorry about that.

Questions swirled but, because the exact nature of the wanted reforms and any reply have not been made public, it’s a matter of guesswork.

To wait only 11 of the 30 days offered in his ultimatum can only mean a couple of things. The most likely, in my view, is that the WHO rejected Trump’s demands.

News of his decision to withdraw from membership and cease funding to the organisation has stirred passionate opposition.

Health experts and foreign leaders are warning that the president's decision is unsafe, especially during the current pandemic. NPR reported that Dr Howard Koh, former assistant secretary for health under the Obama administration, said: “This decision is really so short-sighted and ill-advised, and all it does is put American lives at risk.”

As well as the expected pushback from Democrats, voices have been raised by members of Trump’s own party. Republican Senator and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander, issued a statement in strong disagreement with the president’s decision.

Dr Tom Frieden, formerly head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added to the chorus of criticism. He said: "The United States helped create the World Health Organization. And we're turning our back on it — we're turning our back on the world. That makes us less safe, it makes the world less safe."

I have to agree. I can’t see any benefit for the WHO in helping China and, even if it turns out to be true, it’s surely a problem that would be easier for the U.S. to fix from the inside. 

As it stands, the U.S. is now simple looking on, with reduced sway on global public health matters.

Donald Trump’s erratic and potentially dangerous decision is using the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a perceived nut.

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