COVID-19 is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that has wreaked havoc on countries, economies, and communities globally. The pandemic has resulted in governments, international and national non-government organizations, and intergovernmental organizations joining hands in solidarity to fight the spread of the SARS-CoV-2.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been at the frontline of the pandemic, leading and coordinating the global effort to prevent, detect, and respond to the virus. Through its six regional offices and 149 field offices in countries, the organization has developed both global and regional specific strategic preparedness and response plans. These plans focus on three main aims: (1) improve country preparedness and response, (2) accelerate research and development, and (3) coordinate across regions to assess, respond, and mitigate risks. Moreover, these strategic aims have included the dissemination of health equipment and tests, created collaborative platforms for knowledge exchange, and deployed experts worldwide to assist medical teams within countries.
Even though it has been the leading voice in COVID-19 response and research globally, President Donald Trump of the United States has been extremely vocal regarding his stance with the organization. On May 29, he declared that he would be ending the decades-long partnership with the WHO, saying, “We will be today terminating our relationship with the WHO and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs” (Forbes, June 2020).The hasty resignation by the United States has left experts around the world confused and stunned as to the driving factors behind the withdrawal and what it actually entails.
The president cited multiple reasons for the termination of US relations with the United Nations agency. One issue he cites is China’s control over WHO in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. He stated that the agency had let COVID-19 spin “out of control” at the cost of “many lives”, and described the body as “China-centric” and “a puppet of China” (BBC, May 2020).
The allegations made by the president have been shared by other US officials. The accusations stem from the outbreak emerging from the Chinese city of Wuhan late in 2019, which has been widely reported to have originated from a food market. However, despite the findings of researchers and WHO, US officials, as well as Trump, claim that the virus actually originated from a Wuhan research facility that had been researching the coronavirus in bats.
The allegations regarding the ineffectiveness of WHO, their role in ‘shielding China’, and the idea of COVID-19 being a bioweapon, becomes even more severe when examining White House trade advisor Peter Navarro’s statements: “The Chinese, behind the shield of the World Health Organization for two months, hid the virus from the world, and then sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York, and around the world to seed that (Business Insider, May 2020).”
The claims of China mishandling the outbreak have been supported by others outside of the US, as well. Professor Niall Ferguson, a British epidemiologist, questioned China’s motives and thinking after they continued to allow international flights out of Wuhan, even as it imposed tough restrictions on internal travel (The Times, April 2020). Although there has been support for such claims, there has been no hard evidence that China worked to ‘seed’ or ‘infect’ other countries, and many experts around the world have found these claims to have been politically driven.
Research from experts stating that the virus is not a bioweapon, or was seeded around the world by China, has not slowed down Trump, as his rhetoric continues to call the coronavirus – even after he contracted the virus himself – the “China plague” (CNN, October 2020). The rhetoric used by Trump raises alarms regarding his political motives on COVID-19, and his decision to leave the World Health Organization in May.
Now well into October, the extent of the US’s withdrawal from WHO is still unknown. The US Department of State released a press statement on September 3, 2020, regarding an update on the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization, which explained little on the termination process. It did, however, highlight the fact of the US’s discontent with WHO, and that the withdrawal will become effective on July 6, 2021. Moreover, it stated: “Redirection includes reprogramming the remaining balance of its planned Fiscal Year 2020 assessed WHO contributions to partially pay other UN assessments. In addition, through July 2021, the United States will scale down its engagement with the WHO, to include recalling the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) detailees from WHO headquarters, regional offices, and country offices, and reassigning these experts. US participation in WHO technical meetings and events will be determined on a case-by-case basis” (US Department of State, September 2020).
The need for more transparent and credible partners is Donald Trump’s reasoning for termination of the partnership after decades. However, until now no other valid alternatives have yet been stated or put forward, which raises questions around why such a knee-jerk reaction was taken when the WHO, as well as the UN, focuses on accountability and transparency, as well as is accountable to all countries that have signed onto the organization.
Even more alarming is the gap in funding that the United States’ exit from WHO will leave. It was the largest donor to the organization, with contributions of US$853 million for the 2018/19 biennium (WHO, 2019). The loss of the large contribution, in terms of funding and the reclaiming of US experts from WHO, will undoubtedly take a toll. However, countries around the world will, no doubt, pick up the slack and provide more funding, as well as experts, to the organization to ensure that the crucial work that WHO is doing around the world is continued at the same level as before.
There is still hope for United States engagement with the World Health Organization, if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected into office. In point six of their ‘seven-point plan to beat COVID-19 and get our country back on track’, they state that they will, “immediately restore our relationship with the World Health Organization” (Joe Biden, October 2020).
With the election looming on November 3, 2020, the fate of the WHO and United States agreement is unknown. On one hand, we could see at least four more years of none to limited interaction with the organization, but on the other, we could see the US work swiftly to get reinstated into the organization.
With COVID-19 still ravishing the world, measure being taken that are politically driven can only harm the global efforts to suppress, control and eradicate the virus. These unprecedented times call for solidarity across the world and especially from global leaders like the United States. Sadly, this has not been true throughout the pandemic, and many are disappointed with how the USA and its President have handled the situation.
The United States has been a global leader for the last one-hundred years, maybe it’s time to allow another country to take its place and lead global efforts.