Not since it was established by constitution on 7 April 1948, has the World Health Organization had to butt heads with the office of the president. Donald Trump has led the charge with his heavy criticism of the Geneva-based multilateral organization. On May 29, he announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing funding, and in turn its support, from the WHO. From day one of the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump was quick to lay the blame at the feet of the WHO.
The White House claimed that not only did the organization fail to respond quickly enough to the outbreak but that it was somehow being overly influenced by China. The withdrawing of American dollars would have a significant impact on the capability of the WHO and undermine its efforts to stop COVID-19 in its tracks. Being its largest donor, the removal of $450 million in annual funding to the WHO would not only handicap the organization during one of the worst pandemics in recent memory, but surely cost people their lives as well.
The schism between the WHO and the White House is a new experience for both as the history of the two has seen co-operation, collaboration and progress. After the end of the Second World War, the United States was one of the first countries to champion the idea of having an international health agency to help countries rebuild their national health systems. Up until Trump’s recent decision to stop the cash, the WHO has seen a steady and large stream of funding coming across the Atlantic.
If this mass exodus of funding does happen, what will happen to the U.S. feet on the ground? Many public health researchers and policymakers are deeply entwined within the organization, with some of their researchers serving in WHO’s scientific-advisory groups. Most notably, as part of the team advising on the current COVID-19 outbreak. So, is president Trump justified in his criticism of this decades old ally?
In between blaming China and offering some bizarre and lethal health advice, Trump has long trumpeted the idea that the WHO failed in its initial response to the outbreak. However, if we follow the timeline of the public statements made by the organization, it really was there at location zero, Wuhan in Hubei Province, China. When a spike in pneumonia cases happened on Dec. 31, 2019, the next day the WHO set up an Incident Management Support Team (IMST). Over the following weeks the WHO activated various public information campaigns on social media and began advising countries on how to detect, test and manage a potential outbreak.
Between Jan. 20 and Jan. 23, experts from China and the Western Pacific convened in Wuhan to discuss and decide whether this outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern. It was on Jan. 30 that they came to the conclusion that this virus posed a global threat. After holding many more meetings over January and February, the WHO would declare this outbreak as a global pandemic on March 11, stating that because the disease had taken hold in many countries outside of the originating country of China.
Although there have been accusations that the WHO could have announced this as a global pandemic in mid-January, there is little to prop up their apparent failure to act promptly as this new strain is unprecedented and its transmission was swift. Some have also claimed that China deliberately down played the initial outbreak, which in turn affected the WHO’s response.
Despite Trump’s accusation on April 7 that the WHO appear to be very ‘China-centric’, China’s relationship with the WHO is harder to quantify. Much like with his complaints about the financial contributions made by countries in NATO, Trump’s strategy in criticizing China might have less to do with its relationship with the WHO, and more to do with the money it provides.
It seems that president Trump feels that the organization should be more deferential to his administration as the U.S. contributes 12%-13% to the WHO’s annual budget, as appose to China only contributing 3% to a projected budget for 2020-21 of about $5 billion. Since the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003, the Chinese have increased their numbers in the ranks of the WHO. The Chinese can justify their increased presence within the organization as many epidemics originate from Asia, so their expertise and experience are vital in this current outbreak.
While Trump’s threat to withhold $450 million in annual funding might seem like a decisive power play by the president, many researchers are scratching their heads wondering how this will play out, if at all. First and foremost, the WHO’s founding constitution lacks any provisions for countries to withdraw, although such a move is not without precedent. The Soviet Union led a walkout of Eastern bloc countries in 1949, citing America’s dominance of the WHO as the reason for their departure, only returning after the death of Stalin in 1953.
Additionally, any funding that has already been provided by the United States can’t simple be taken back, nor can any voluntary contributions pledged in advance. In 1948, both houses of Congress passed a resolution stating that if the U.S. wanted to leave the organization, it would have to give one year’s notice and pay any outstanding funds. The United Nations would create the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and its 1986 extension to help countries withdraw from multilateral organizations should they chose to do so, but the U.S. never ratified these agreements, something that the Trump administration no doubt regrets now.
Is this withdraw likely to happen? It is very hard to judge what Trump will do next as his decision making processes play more like experimental jazz than the London Philharmonic Orchestra. As alluded to before with the president’s thoughts on NATO, he does have a recent history of exiting organizations that have had long standing relationships with the U.S. In 2017, he decided to leave the UN’s science-cooperation agency UNESCO. He would also end the United States involvement with the Iran nuclear deal much to the chagrin of members from both sides of the aisle.
It would be his own red side of the floor that would raise their voices in protest at such a exit from an organization that is leading the battle against COVID-19. Lawmakers are looking at ways to block this most dangerous of moves and if they can’t block it, they can at least ensure the White House respects the 1948 resolution by providing the one year notice and settling any outstanding dues.
The final issue with the United States withdrawing from the WHO is that organizations can only be improved from the inside. To turn our backs on them would cause a loss of considerable influence in the sphere of global health concerns. Our partnership with other countries to trace, track and eradicate future epidemics is the only way forward. If the Trump administration make good on their threat, the WHO’s constitutional duty is to keep the country’s seat, so when wiser heads prevail, we can take our place back at the table.