Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Cutting off the WHO is the wrong response


April 22, 2020

President Donald Trump is not wrong to question the World Health Organization’s early response to the emerging coronavirus outbreak and its apparent deference to what we now know were false assurances by Chinese officials about the seriousness of the outbreak.

But Trump is wrong to use these otherwise legitimate concerns as an excuse to cut off U.S. contributions to the international health agency until it can satisfy his demand for answers and undertake fundamental structural reforms. As Trump may have noticed, the WHO is pretty busy at the moment fighting a still-raging pandemic. It’s irresponsible and counterproductive to interrupt critical efforts by the agency to support the development of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, coordinate international shipments of protective gear, train healthcare workers and help developing nations slow the spread of infections, which surpassed 2 million worldwide last week.

Yes, WHO officials were probably too credulous of assurances by Chinese officials that they had the outbreak under control, and they were too timid to call for travel restrictions in January that might have helped contain the disease, although infections had already spread far from China by then.

But Trump was just as taken in, praising Chinese President Xi Jinping several times for his transparency and “smart” response to the outbreak.

Now that it turns out we were all duped, Trump is looking for a scapegoat. And he has found one in the oft-criticized WHO, an arm of the United Nations created in 1945 with a goal of promoting global health. The organization was roundly thrashed for its mishandling of the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and for taking too long to sound the alarm about the outbreak to the rest of the world. (Ironically, just a few years earlier the organization was criticized for being too alarmist about the swine flu pandemic.) Both internal and external assessments of the WHO’s Ebola response cited structural deficiencies, such as lack of funding and clear mandates, as at least part of the problem, and those deficiencies still seem to be a factor.

But there’s also a misconception about what the global health organization is empowered and expected to do. The WHO is not solely, or even mostly, focused on providing an early warning of emerging infectious diseases. It runs a multitude of programs to promote public health, such as assisting in the creation of vaccines, supporting public education efforts around measles and other communicable diseases, and building strong healthcare networks in poorer countries. It does this all while trying, and sometimes failing, to balance the competing interests and demands of its member nations.

If President Trump wants to revisit payments to WHO, or attach strings to the United States’ future participation as a WHO member, the time to talk about that will be after the pandemic has ended.

— Los Angeles Times


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