LONDON (AP) — Health experts say U.S. President Donald Trump’s increasing attacks on the World Health Organization for its handling of the coronavirus demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the U.N. agency’s role and could ultimately serve to weaken global health.
In a letter to WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Trump wrote that WHO’s “repeated missteps” in its response to the pandemic have proven “very costly for the world.”
On Monday, Trump threatened to permanently cut U.S. funding to WHO unless the agency commits to “substantive improvements” in the next 30 days.
“I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America’s interests,” he wrote.
The U.S. is WHO’s biggest donor, providing about $450 million a year.
Devi Sridhar, a professor of global health at the University of Edinburgh, said the letter was likely written for Trump’s political base and meant to deflect blame for the virus’ devastating impact in the U.S., which has by far the most infections and virus deaths in the world.
“China and the U.S. are fighting it out like divorced parents while WHO is the child caught in the middle, trying not to pick sides,” she said.
“President Trump doesn’t understand what the WHO can and cannot do,” she said, explaining that it sets international standards and is driven by its member countries. “If he thinks they need more power, then member states should agree and delegate it more.”
Michael Head, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, said much of what Trump was demanding was beyond WHO’s intended scope.
“The WHO have limited powers, in terms of what they can demand of countries where outbreaks are taking place,” Head said. “They provide expert guidance and not enforcement by law.”
Head noted that there clear gaps in governance elsewhere that have allowed COVID-19 to spread — notably in the U.S., which has seen 1.5 million infections and over 90,000 deaths linked to COVID-19.
Trump has repeatedly accused WHO of being unduly influenced by China and wrote that the agency has been “curiously insistent” on praising the country’s “alleged transparency.”
WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said the organization had no immediate response to Trump’s letter. The agency has previously noted that it declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30, when there were fewer than 100 cases of coronavirus outside of China.
When that declaration was made, WHO chief Tedros said China was setting a new standard for outbreak response. He said the world owed China its gratitude for the way it bought other nations time to plan with the extraordinary measures it was taking to contain the virus.
(This story was originally published on May 19, 2020)