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'Worst response on Earth': What's behind Trump's WHO funding cut?

US president Donald Trump is mad. Really mad.

The targets of his scorn make up a growing list including the media, his own chief medical experts, and perhaps most of all right now, the World Health Organisation.

On Wednesday, Trump seemingly followed through on his threat to pull funding from the global health body saying “so much death has been caused by their mistakes”.

The US president ordered a review of the WHO and accused it of “severely mismanaging and covering up” the spread of COVID-19.

The US is by far the largest financial supporter of the United Nations and its World Health Organisation, and disease and medical experts have decried the move as “dangerous” and “profoundly detrimental to world health”.

The WHO has copped a lot of criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, but there appears to be a certain calculation behind Trump’s latest move.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with healthcare executives on April 14, 2020. Source: AFP
US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with healthcare executives on April 14, 2020. Source: AFP

Trump’s rage-fest labelled ‘absurd and dangerous’

Many view Trump’s actions as a way for the US president to scapegoat a global organisation and deflect blame from his own slow response to coronavirus as he heads into a national election in November.

Reacting to Trump's earlier threats to pull funding, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused Trump of politicising the pandemic for his own ends.

“The focus of all political parties should be to save their people. Please don't politicise this virus,” he said at a press briefing in Geneva last week.

“If you want to have many more body bags, then you do it. If you don't want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicising it ... We will have many body bags in front of us if we don't behave.”

Dr Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious diseases specialist at Boston University, was among a chorus of experts to denounce Trump’s decision on Wednesday.

“Cutting 15 percent (US contribution) of WHO budget during the biggest projected pandemic of the last century is an absolute disaster,” she wrote on Twitter.

“WHO is a global technical partner, the platform through which sovereign countries share data/technology, our eyes on the global scope of this pandemic.”

Others believe the US president is trying to deflect from the US federal response to the pandemic which has been heavily criticised.

Speaking to The Guardian, global health expert at Duke University, Gavin Yamey, worried about the flow-on effects of removing such a substantial portion of the WHO’s budget.

“It’s a bizarre decision that would be profoundly detrimental to global public health,” he said. “He’s trying to distract from his own errors that have led to the worst government response to Covid-19 on Earth.”

The increasingly partisan US media has been highly critical of the government’s coronavirus response with the US recording the most known cases in the world at more than 614,000 by Wednesday – more than three times any other nation.

Dr Anthony Fauci speaks as Donald Trump watches on. Source: Getty
Dr Anthony Fauci speaks as Donald Trump watches on. Source: Getty

After Trump dedicated a press conference this week to bashing the media and retweeted a call for his chief infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci to be fired after he said Trump could have saved more lives if he acted earlier, the rhetoric has only ramped up.

Under the headline “Trump’s latest rage-fest is one of his most absurd and dangerous yet”, The Washington Post labelled Trump’s proposed funding cut to the WHO as an “exercise in blame shifting”.

“It’s clear the WHO will be a fat target as Trump deflects attention from damning new details emerging about his horribly botched coronavirus response,” it wrote.

The many criticisms of the WHO

For its part, the WHO has made itself an easy target for scapegoating and has been heavily criticised for appearing to cow-tow to China’s demands and for being slow to declare a global health emergency as the virus spread.

Crucially, the WHO was slow to heed early warnings from Taiwan about human-to-human transmission of COVID-19, while China reportedly covered up information.

“They have not performed their duty to do the decent investigation … or publish the information (that was) badly needed by the world,” Dr Feng Chongyi, associate professor in China Studies at UTS, told Yahoo News Australia on Tuesday.

As a world body the organisation has been criticised for being inherently political, particularly when it comes to issues like the recognition of Taiwan, on which it seems to be influenced by China.

“WHO from the very beginning have not done a great job, from the very beginning they have operated too closely with the Chinese authorities,” Dr Chongyi said.

“That has been a source criticism from countries around the world.”

Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on January 28, 2020. Source: Getty
Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on January 28, 2020. Source: Getty

It’s also not the first time in recent memory the WHO has been criticised for being too slow to act during an epidemic.

In 2015, experts widely lambasted the organisation’s response to the Ebola outbreak, saying its reticence to declare a global health emergency contributed to the “immense human suffering, fear and chaos” in parts of Africa where the virus spread.

In the wake of the epidemic, experts from Harvard’s Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said the organisation’s failure to sound the alarm until months into West Africa’s Ebola outbreak was an “egregious failure”.

As a response, the outbreak went “largely unchecked” by a reliable and rapid institutional response.

Who funds the WHO?

The US is by far the biggest financial contributor to the WHO. It reportedly contributed about US$400 million last year, but back in March was making noises about halving that amount.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told reporters at the end of last month: “Our contribution exceeded US$400 million last year, 10 times that of China.”

The WHO relies on donations and regular payments from member countries which it calls assessed contributions. The amount each member state must pay is calculated relative to the country's wealth and population.

For instance, if you look at a spreadsheet of the WHO’s latest funding contributions from countries, the US chipped in nearly US$58 million while little old Vanuatu sitting a couple spots below in alphabetical order contributed less than $5,000, in 2020 up until March 31.

China has so far contributed nearly US$28 million in 2020 while Australia has paid close to $5.3 million for its membership this year.

“Assessed contributions have declined as an overall percentage of the budget,” in recent years to make about a quarter of the program budget, the WHO says on its website.

“However, assessed contributions remain a key source of financing for the organisation, providing a level of predictability, helping to minimise dependence on a narrow donor base, and allowing resources to be aligned to the program budget.”

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