TOKYO — The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to halt funding to the World Health Organization could end up pushing the United Nations unit further into China’s arms, despite legitimate criticism that its favoritism toward Beijing caused it to mismanage the beginning of the pandemic.
Trump said Tuesday that he is instructing his administration to put funding to the WHO on hold for 60 to 90 days for a review of its coronavirus response. How long the freeze will actually last is unclear.
Many in his administration and the Republican Party say that for fear of angering Beijing, the WHO did not properly scrutinize the situation in Wuhan and it warned the rest of the world too late, allowing the virus to spread globally. For Trump, playing up alleged WHO negligence also serves to deflect criticism of his own slow response to the outbreak in the U.S.
“The WHO failed in this basic duty” to ensure timely sharing of information about global health threats “and must be held accountable,” Trump told reporters at the daily press briefing of the White House coronavirus task force. He blasted the organization for criticizing restrictions on travel from China like those imposed by Washington.
Losing its largest sponsor would be a painful blow to the WHO. Washington contributed $890 million over the two years of 2018 and 2019, or 16% of its total funding. China, by contrast, paid in just $86 million during the same period.
On Wednesday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed his disappointment at the U.S. decision.
“The United States of America has been a long-standing and generous friend of the WHO and we hope it will continue to be so,” Tedros told a news conference in Geneva. “We regret the decision of the president of the United States to order a halt in the funding to the WHO.”
He said that in addition to fighting COVID-19, the WHO helps many of the world’s poorest and vulnerable people who are struggling with diseases and other conditions. Its programs include polio, measles, malaria, Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis, malnutrition, cancer, diabetes, and mental health, he added.
“WHO is reviewing the impact on our work of any withdrawal of U.S. funding and we will work with partners to fill any financial gaps we face and to ensure our work continues uninterrupted,” he said.
The halt comes just as COVID-19 threatens to spread through the Middle East, Africa and Asia — regions where many countries lack the resources to respond effectively to an epidemic.
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates was among the critics of Trump, tweeting that “Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds.” The Microsoft co-founder said that the WHO’s work in slowing the spread of COVID-19 cannot be replaced by any other organization. “The world needs @WHO now more than ever.”
But that does not mean Trump’s criticism of the WHO favoring China is off the mark.
Of particular note are comments by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. In a Jan. 28 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing, Tedros praised China’s “decisive” steps to stem the outbreak, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
He again lauded the “unprecedented” response in a news conference two days later, saying Beijing “is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak.”
Tedros also warned around that time against “measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade” as countries began restricting travel from China.
Further possible evidence of bias has emerged more recently. Taiwanese authorities say they received no reply to a message sent to the WHO in late December suggesting possible human-to-human transmission.
Some in Washington are upset that the organization did not take this warning more seriously, which could have enabled a faster international response to the outbreak.
Yet even given these points, cutting off funding is a bad move given the likelihood that it will backfire. China may well boost its contribution to fill the void left by Washington, further solidifying its influence.
The WHO is requesting an additional $1 billion in funding this year from member countries to combat the coronavirus, according to Reuters. If the U.S. refuses to chip in, the organization may have no choice but to rely on China. Beijing’s regular contribution, while still small compared with that of the U.S., has sharply increased in recent years and has plenty of room to grow.
The funding freeze also risks accelerating a political tilt toward China among WHO members. Beijing has cemented support from countries in such regions as Africa by using foreign aid as a diplomatic tool, making inroads into the WHO’s core. A hardline anti-Beijing stance in Washington may spark a backlash that unifies these China-leaning countries against the U.S.
Rather than making financial threats, Washington would be better served to deepen its participation in the WHO and weaken Beijing’s influence. Specifically, the U.S., Europe and Japan should contribute generously to the organization’s requested coronavirus funding in exchange for greater influence over how it is used.