GENEVA – Nations around the world reacted with alarm Wednesday after President Donald Trump announced a halt to the sizable funding the United States sends to the World Health Organization. Health experts warned the move could jeopardize global efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic.
At a briefing in Washington, Trump said he was instructing his administration to halt funding for WHO pending a review of its role “in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” The United States is WHO’s largest single donor, contributing between $400 million and $500 million annually to the Geneva-based agency in recent years.
Trump has repeatedly labelled COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and criticized the U.N. health agency for being too lenient on China, where the novel virus first emerged late last year.
Outside experts have questioned China's reported infections and deaths from the virus, calling them way too low and unreliable. And an investigation by The Associated Press has found that s ix days of delays between when Chinese officials k new about the virus and when they warned the public allowed the pandemic to bloom into an enormous public health disaster.
The European Union on Wednesday said Trump has “no reason” to freeze WHO funding at this critical stage and called for measures to promote unity instead of division. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-nation bloc “deeply” regrets the suspension of funds and added that the U.N. health agency is now “needed more than ever” to combat the pandemic.
Borrell said “only by joining forces can we overcome this crisis that knows no borders.”
Even though they have been traditional allies for decades, the EU has increasingly been critical of the Trump administration over the past years.
Worldwide, the pandemic has infected nearly 2 million people and killed over 127,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The virus is spread by microscopic droplets expelled into the air or left on surfaces when people sneeze or cough.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he sympathized with some of Trump’s criticisms of WHO and China but that Australia would continue to fund the U.N. health agency.
"We work closely with them so that we're not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater here,” Morrison told Perth Radio 6PR. “But they’re also not immune from criticism.”
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, pushed back at Trump’s announcement.
“Placing blame doesn’t help,” he wrote on Twitter. “The virus knows no borders. We must work closely against COVID-19. Strengthening the U.N., in particular the underfunded WHO, is a better investment, for example, to develop and distribute tests and vaccines.”
Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, called Trump's decision “extremely problematic,” noting that the chronically-underfunded WHO is leading efforts to help developing countries fight the spread of COVID-19.
“This is the agency that's looking out for other countries and leading efforts to stop the pandemic,” Sridhar said. “This is exactly the time when they need more funding, not less.”
Sridhar said Trump's move was a short-sighted political decision that would likely have lasting consequences.
“Trump is angry, but his anger is being directed in a way that is going to ultimately hurt U.S. interests,” she said.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian says the country is "seriously concerned” about the U.S. government’s decision to suspend funding.
“As the most authoritative and professional international institution in the field of global public health security, the WHO plays an irreplaceable role in responding to the global public health crisis,” he told reporters Wednesday.
The WHO did not respond to repeated requests from The Associated Press for comment, but its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other top WHO officials were expected to attend a news conference on the pandemic later Wednesday.
Many analysts have praised the initial response to the pandemic by WHO, which is being challenged as national interests collide with the international cooperation that U.N. agencies must rely on.
But recently, many governments have split with its advice on issues of public health policy, notably on travel restrictions and whether the public should wear masks.