Criticised for response to coronavirus outbreak, Donald Trump clumsily tries to shift blame to WHO

For weeks, President Donald Trump has faced relentless criticism for having overseen a slow and ineffective response to the coronavirus pandemic, failing to quickly embrace public health measures that could have prevented the disease from spreading

The New York Times April 15, 2020 07:59:50 IST
Criticised for response to coronavirus outbreak, Donald Trump clumsily tries to shift blame to WHO

Washington: For weeks, President Donald Trump has faced relentless criticism for having overseen a slow and ineffective response to the coronavirus pandemic, failing to quickly embrace public health measures that could have prevented the disease from spreading.

Recent polls show that more Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the virus than approve.

So on Tuesday, the president tried to shift the blame elsewhere, ordering his administration to halt funding for the World Health Organisation and claiming the organisation made a series of devastating mistakes as it sought to battle the virus. He said his administration would conduct a review into whether the WHO was responsible for “severely mismanaging and covering up” the spread.

“So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” the president told reporters during a White House briefing.

In effect, Trump was accusing the world’s leading health organisation of making all of the mistakes that he has made since the virus first emerged in China and then spread rapidly around the world.

A centrepiece of the president’s attack on the WHO is his contention that it was too quick to believe information about the virus coming from the Chinese government at a time when it should have been more critical. He said the WHO “willingly took China’s assurances to face value” and “pushed China’s misinformation”.

But it was Trump himself who went out of his way to publicly and repeatedly praise the Chinese government for its handling of the virus at a time at the beginning of the year that his administration was negotiating a trade deal with China.

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President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House. By Doug Mills © 2020 The New York Times

On 24 January, around a month after the virus was discovered there, Trump tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus . The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”

But the president claimed that the WHO “fought” the United States after he ordered limits on flights from China on 31 January. He was apparently referring to a decision by WHO officials to issue a statement saying that “restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions”.

The WHO generally opposes travel bans. In practice, they have done little to stem the spread of viruses, and they prevent the distribution of medical supplies and expertise to countries needing them. They also can cause economic damage that may outweigh the harms done by an epidemic.

The coronavirus has tested those assumptions in wealthier countries, and many experts agree that a ban on travel to the United States first from China and then from Europe may have bought precious and limited time to prepare. But critics say the White House wasted that time, and Trump has seized on an opportunity to deflect blame to the WHO.

The question of whether the WHO was not aggressive enough in recommending action against the virus has come up in other countries, as well. Some governments have noted that the organisation’s leadership did not challenge China’s assertion in mid-January that there was not human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus .

But the WHO did issue urgent advisories about the potential dangers from the virus throughout January and announced that it constituted a “public health emergency of international concern” a day before Trump’s administration made a similar declaration.

And the president’s broadside against the world’s premier health organisation ran counter to his own assessment of the group as little as six weeks ago and appeared intended to move attention away from the accusations levelled at his administration.

In late February — before some of the harshest criticism of Trump’s inaction — the president heaped praise on the WHO, saying the organisation had been working closely with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.

“The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” he tweeted, “We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”

The decision to go after the WHO is a continuation of the president’s attempt to shift the blame throughout the crisis. Over the past several months, Trump has repeatedly accused the news media, governors, Democratic members of Congress and former president Barack Obama of being responsible for the number of cases overwhelming the nation’s hospitals.

Asked directly in mid-March whether he was to blame for the lack of testing capacity in the country, Trump said: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

The biennial budget for the WHO is about $6 billion, which comes from member countries around the world. In 2019, the last year for which figures were available, the United States contributed about $553 million.

Founded in 1948, the WHO has its headquarters in Geneva, but it has 7,000 workers in 150 offices worldwide. Its website says that it works to promote primary health care around the world, improve access to essential medicine and help train health care workers.

During emergencies, the group, a United Nations agency, seeks to identify threats and mitigate risks, support the development of health tools during outbreaks and “support the delivery of essential health services in fragile settings,” according to the website.

Trump said on Tuesday that the United States would evaluate what to do with the money that currently is sent to the WHO, adding, “Maybe WHO will reform and maybe they won’t.”

Michael D Shear c.2020 The New York Times Company

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