WHO members reject Donald Trump's demands, but agree to examination of global body's coronavirus response

President Donald Trump’s angry demands for punitive action against the World Health Organisation were rebuffed on Tuesday by the organiation’s other member nations, which decided instead to conduct an “impartial, independent” examination of the WHO’s response to the coronavirus pandemic

The New York Times May 20, 2020 06:39:01 IST
WHO members reject Donald Trump's demands, but agree to examination of global body's coronavirus response

Washington: President Donald Trump’s angry demands for punitive action against the World Health Organisation were rebuffed on Tuesday by the organisation’s other member nations, which decided instead to conduct an “impartial, independent” examination of the WHO’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a four-page letter late on Monday, Trump had threatened to permanently cut off US funding of the WHO unless it committed to “major, substantive improvements” within 30 days. It was a major escalation of his repeated attempts to blame the WHO and China for the spread of the virus and deflect responsibility for his handling of a worldwide public health crisis that has killed more than 90,000 people in the United States.

But representatives of the organisation’s member nations rallied around the WHO at its annual meeting in Geneva, largely ignoring Trump’s demand for an overhaul and calling for a global show of support in the face of a deadly pandemic.

The outcome left the United States isolated as officials from China, Russia and the European Union chided Trump over his heated threats even as they acknowledged the need for a review of how the WHO performed as the virus spread from China to the rest of the world.

Public health experts noted that Trump’s threats to withdraw from the organisation and halt funding ignored the reality that any such moves would require the consent of Congress, something many analysts said was unlikely.

But the president’s continued attacks on the WHO, experts said, threatened to hobble the organisation at a critical moment and seriously damage international efforts to combat the virus, especially in poorer countries that depend heavily on the agency.

WHO members reject Donald Trumps demands but agree to examination of global bodys coronavirus response

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

“Just when the world was trying to come together over an unprecedented health crisis, it’s all splintered apart,” said Lawrence O Gostin, the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “This kind of disruption and setting global health on fire by the Trump administration is going to cost lives.”

Virginie Battu-Henriksson, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said it was “the time for solidarity, not the time for finger pointing”. Valentina I Matviyenko, speaker of the Upper House of the Russian Parliament, said Moscow would stand behind the WHO, adding that there was “certainly no reason to perform a mock trial or any kinds of investigations” or to “destroy the useful things that have been accumulated for decades by mankind”.

The resolution approved by WHO members without objection promised a “comprehensive evaluation” of the organisation that would review “experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19”.

In a statement, the White House sought to claim victory, suggesting that the resolution amounted to a mandate to investigate Trump’s concerns about the origins of the virus.

But the document, which was sponsored by scores of US allies but not the United States, fell far short of the condemnation of the WHO that Trump issued in his letter on Monday night. Officials at the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Trump has railed against the WHO for weeks as his own political and public health crisis at home has intensified, saying the organisation is in the thrall of China, where the virus originated. In his letter Monday night, he said the WHO was responsible for many deaths because it failed to challenge the version of events provided by President Xi Jinping of China regarding the origin of the virus and its initial spread.

“As the source of the outbreak, China has a special responsibility to pay more and to give more,” John Ullyot, a spokesman for Trump’s National Security Council, said in a statement before the meeting.

The president accuses the global health group of failing to act quickly and aggressively enough against the virus, in effect denouncing the organisation for the very missteps and failures that have been levelled at him and his administration. Public health experts have said the president’s public denials of the virus’s dangers slowed the US response, which included delayed testing and a failure to stockpile protective gear.

Foreign policy experts said Trump’s attacks on the WHO provided a strategic opening for China, which announced Monday that it would spend $2 billion in the global fight against the pandemic, and served mainly to undercut the interests of the United States by angering its closest allies.

“We’ve been actively alienating them, which is not a good competitive strategy on our part,” said Thomas J Christensen, director of the China and the World programme at Columbia University and a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “We’re weakening our own diplomatic profile around the world, and strengthening China’s.”

Trump’s criticism about the WHO’s cosiness with China was particularly ironic given his praise for the country early in the pandemic, when he was trying to complete negotiations on a trade deal.

Besides his accusations, Trump’s letter also contained a number of falsehoods and misleading statements. One of them was that the WHO “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal”.

But in a statement on Tuesday morning, The Lancet pointed out that the journal “published no report in December 2019 referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China.” The journal said its first reports about the virus were published on 24 January, just six days before the WHO declared an international emergency.

Trump’s attacks on the WHO are at the centre of the president’s appeal to his core supporters — a message that his political advisors intend to highlight as Trump fights for a second term this November. To many of the president’s supporters, the WHO and other international organisations are to blame for lost jobs, low wages and economic uncertainty.

And as Trump seeks reelection, he will need to convince a broad part of the electorate that he is not responsible for the tens of thousands of deaths and economic calamity caused by the virus. Creating enemies out of the WHO and the Chinese government could be an effective way of blunting what is sure to be fierce criticism from Democrats this fall about his handling of the pandemic.

The WHO resolution approved on Tuesday did not provide specific direction to investigate one of Trump’s central allegations against the global health group: that it was too credulous in believing China’s assertions about the virus and its leaders’ denials that it was not created in a Chinese lab.

Scientists who have studied the genetics of the virus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a non-laboratory setting, as was the case with HIV, Ebola and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

China did not object to the resolution, but Xi said Monday that any such inquiry should wait until the health crisis is brought under control.

At the White House on Tuesday, Trump said the WHO would “have to clean up their act”.

“They have to do a better job,” he said. “They have to be much more fair to other countries, including the United States, or we’re not going to be involved with them and we’ll do it in a separate way.”

In a closing statement Tuesday that marked the end of the two-day assembly, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, reiterated his support for an investigation into the organisation’s handling of its response to the virus and highlighted the need for cooperation.

“COVID-19 has robbed us of people we love. It has robbed us of lives and livelihoods. It has shaken the foundations of our world,” he said. “It threatens to tear at the fabric of international cooperation. But it has also reminded us that for all our differences, we are one human race, and we are stronger together.”

Michael D Shear and Andrew Jacobs c.2020 The New York Times Company

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