The world's worst health crisis in a hundred years might not seem like the best time for the World Health Organization's biggest financial supporter to threaten to pull the plug on its operations, but that's where we are.
In a withering four-page letter to the organization's Director General this week, the Trump administration says that the organization ignored early warnings about the virus' spread, took at face value Chinese efforts to downplay it, and failed to get a research team into the Chinese city of Wuhan, early epicenter of the pandemic, to conduct vital research at an early enough stage. The letter closes with a threat: unless the WHO shapes up to better serve "American interests," the US will pull funding from the organization entirely in 30 days.
Some argue that Trump is simply trying to divert attention from his own handling of the outbreak in the United States. Others counter that, love Trump or hate him, he's right about this. Here's a useful fact check of some of the letter's specific claims.
So, is Trump's criticism of the WHO fair?
Yes, the WHO is broken and must be forced to change. Faced with the outbreak of a potentially severe new illness, the WHO failed to expose the facts of the case. The organization either did not see or did not acknowledge evidence that China hid the true scale of the virus' threat and punished Chinese doctors who publicly warned that risks were growing. In January, the WHO's inspector publicly praised "China's commitment to transparency."
The refusal to directly provide information to Taiwan – which is excluded from membership in the organization out of international deference to China's wishes – put millions of Taiwanese people at unnecessary risk. Where's the transparency in that? Whether the WHO's failure was a result of ignorance or cowardice in the face of Beijing's newly assertive leadership, these problems cost the world valuable time that could have been used to slow momentum toward a global pandemic.
In sum, if the "WHO" can't safeguard "WH" at a moment like this, then we clearly need to remake the "O" itself.
No, Trump fails to understand what the WHO is and isn't. First, the Organization doesn't have a mandate to enter any of its member states "uninvited." Any restrictions on entry are China's to answer for, not the WHO's. And while China is prickly, it's hard to imagine the United States government – or many others for that matter – giving an international health organization free access to any information it wants.
Second, how do you blame the WHO for sounding the alarm late when the White House ignored the earliest WHO warnings. The organization called the virus a "global health emergency" in January. The Trump administration waited until March 16 to issue national social distancing guidelines. Had this been done even two weeks earlier, some virologists say, as many as 90 percent of American deaths could have been prevented.
Third, even if the WHO should be reformed, threatening to walk away from it in the middle of a pandemic is dangerous and short-sighted. COVID-19 is currently wreaking havoc in low-income countries that rely on WHO personnel and infrastructure to manage large parts of the pandemic response. Pulling the plug now risks an even greater human catastrophe.
Finally, Trump's threat is strategically foolish. If you're worried about Chinese influence at the WHO, walking out risks opening the way for...China! Just hours before Trump sent his letter, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged up to $2 billion to help the WHO's global pandemic response efforts. Is that really what the White House wants?
What do you think? Is the current WHO a big problem in need of urgent reform, or is it an imperfect organization that's a lot better than any current alternatives?