Editorial

Look WHO’s talking: Trump’s recklessness can impair Covid-19 fight

| Updated on April 15, 2020 Published on April 15, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with recovered Covid-19 patients in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Trump is holding off for now on his threat to slash U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization (WHO) over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter. Photographer: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg   -  Bloomberg

Trump has once again demonstrated his disdain for the role of multilateral bodies — that their raison d’etre is to work for the collective good particularly in situations of crises

US President Donald Trump, under fire at home as coronavirus deaths cross 26,000 in the country, has sought to shift the blame on the World Health Organization. Preparing a case for how “WHO really blew it”, he has turned off the funds tap for the WHO for at least the next few months. The US funds about $500 million or more out of WHO’s $6-billion annual budget, and its withdrawal could impact the fight against a virus which is on the rampage in its part of the world. While Trump has been brutal in his attack on the WHO — virtually calling it an apologist for China, accusing it of being slow in declaring Covid a pandemic, and in advising travel curbs — his initial responses, too, were unmistakably casual. Extending his quid pro quo style to all situations, he has now sought accountability from the WHO for the contributions made by the US taxpayer, being particularly sore that China coughs up just a tenth of the US for the WHO. In doing so, Trump has once again demonstrated his disdain for the role of multilateral bodies — that their raison d’etre is to work for the collective good particularly in situations of crises. In the context of the WHO, funds are needed like never before to meet the global demand for medical gear and fund research for a cure for Covid-19. Trump’s petulance misses the big picture, even if there is an element of truth in his broadsides. The WHO ought to have taken a grim view of China’s infamous wet markets as well as its general lack of transparency.

The WHO’s programmes are, in fact, closely linked to the interests of its donors rather than the developing world. Tropical disease research accounts for barely 1 per cent of its budget, whereas ‘corporate services and enabling functions’ accounts for over 15 per cent. The WHO’s recent record has been patchy. It was slow to respond to Ebola, which bypassed the rich countries. In 2004, its advisory to stock anti-viral drugs came under scrutiny, as it was apparently issued by medical professionals linked to the companies manufacturing these medicines. Trump’s criticisms, ironically, open up the debate of directing world health funds towards priorities of poorer populations. India can play a role in this respect. It showed the way more than a decade ago by providing cheap HIV drugs to the developing world, establishing the need for patents to be relaxed in medical emergencies. These issues need to be flagged from time to time, with the WTO turning increasingly ineffective in this regard, not least due to the US.

The US has turned its back on climate talks, the WTO, NATO and other forums. The Covid-19 crisis signals the need for a return to multilateralism, as opposed to irresponsible populism. The consequences of not doing so can be catastrophic.

Published on April 15, 2020

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