President Trump announced that he would halt funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) pending an investigation into the agency’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The White House based its decision on a series of misleading statements issued by the WHO, as well as on director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus’s effusive praise of the Chinese government. (Not coincidentally, China backed Tedros’s bid to lead the organization in 2017.)
Critics charge Trump with scapegoating the WHO for the administration’s failures, while others caution that pulling funding will weaken efforts to combat the pandemic. They are wrong on both counts.
It’s no secret that the White House got off to a late start in combating the coronavirus. Trump downplayed the threat of the disease even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans to brace for an outbreak, and we criticized him for it. But this obviously doesn’t vindicate the World Health Organization. We noted its failures last week.
Tedros objected to Trump’s correct decision to impose travel restrictions on China, claiming it would “have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit” — a stark contrast with his deferential statements about China’s response. In mid January, the WHO announced that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus,” despite numerous reports to the contrary. Parroting Chinese misinformation wasn’t enough for Tedros: He went on to praise the Chinese Communist Party for “setting a new standard for outbreak control.” Later, Tedros overruled the objections of WHO colleagues and delayed the declaration of a public-health emergency, which cost the world precious time in preparing for the pandemic.
Because there are no existing vaccines or proven treatments for COVID-19, information is our most valuable resource in fighting this pandemic. Policymakers must calibrate their responses based on data collected domestically and received from abroad. In its capacity as the facilitator of international information exchanges, the WHO is supposed to vet and disseminate data from its 194 member states. The organization fell down on this most basic task by buying Chinese spin wholesale.
Some argue that withholding our funding of the WHO — $400 million a year — will hinder its international relief efforts. This is a legitimate concern, but the WHO’s missteps themselves hindered the fight against the pandemic at a critical stage. In any event, U.S. funding of pandemic relief does not depend on any single multilateral bureaucracy. In fact, the U.S. has already spent more than $500 million on foreign aid to combat the pandemic — roughly 25 percent of the WHO’s annual budget — on top of existing contributions to multilateral and nongovernmental organizations. During the 60-day hold on funds to the WHO, the White House says it will redirect resources to public-health programs untainted by Chinese influence. While the White House conducts its investigation, the WHO will retain the bulk of its considerable resources. In the meantime, it will deservedly face more international scrutiny for its apparent complicity in China’s coverup of the coronavirus.
The more the World Health Organization capitulates to Chinese soft power, the less effective — and the less deserving of our support — it will be. The White House is right to bring serious pressure to bear to try to check this trend.