In Depth

Coronavirus: what has the World Health Organization done wrong?

Trump pulls funding for agency over accusations of ‘cover-ups and failures’

Donald Trump has been heavily criticised for withdrawing funding from the World Health Organization (WHO) during the coronavirus pandemic.

The head of the UN agency, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he “regrets” the US president’s move, adding that he was reviewing the impact of the cuts in an effort “to ensure work continues uninterrupted”, says the Daily Mail.

Bill Gates, one of the WHO’s biggest financial backers, said Trump halting funding was “as dangerous as it sounds”.

What do WHO’s critics say?

The US president has insisted that WHO has made mistakes that have cost lives, and placed too much trust in China at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak.

“I am directing my administration to halt funding while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” said Trump on Tuesday, the BBC reports.

A White House statement added: “The American people deserve better from the WHO, and no more funding will be provided until its mismanagement, cover-ups and failures can be investigated.”

Trump claims the pandemic could have been better contained from the outset if WHO had efficiently investigated the initial reports from China, reports Sky News.

He has also suggested that the agency incorrectly praised China for its transparency on the outbreak, despite evidence suggesting that the country’s cases and deaths tallies are not accurate, and the Chinese state censorship machine has been in overdrive.

The New York Post reported that Chinese scientists were ordered by government officials to suppress evidence about the virus and its deadly effects as early as December.

The alleged cover-up “continued when representatives from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited Wuhan” the following month and officials “intentionally withheld information that hospital workers had been infected by patients – a telltale sign of contagion”, the newspaper says.

But at the time, Trump himself was praising China’s reaction to the outbreak, downplaying the risk of the virus in the US long after WHO had declared a “public health emergency of international concern”.

“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” he tweeted on 24 January.

On 14 January, WHO said: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.”

It wasn’t until a week later, on 22 January, that the organisation released a public statement saying that human-to-human transmission did appear to be taking place in Wuhan.

At the end of January, however, WHO said that travel restrictions were not needed to stop the spread of Covid-19, reports the BBC. The US was one of the countries that ignored that advice and introduced a travel ban the next day.

WHO’s director-general Tedros praised China for its heavy lockdown restrictions, despite WHO experts being allowed into the country to investigate the outbreak only as late as 10 February, when the country already had more than 40,000 cases, says the BBC.

And WHO drew criticism in March for being evasive over Taiwan, which considers itself an independent nation but is ruled by China. Bruce Aylward, WHO assistant director-general, appeared to dodge questions on Taiwan, hanging up the video call.

WHO’s apparent pandering to China has not done the organisation any favours in dispelling ideas that it is constrained by politics and bureaucracy.

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What do its defenders say?

Gates, one of the WHO’s biggest financial backers, criticised Trump’s decision to withdraw funding.

“Their work is slowing the spread of Covid-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs WHO now more than ever,” he said in a tweet.

Countries around the world have rushed to back the organisation and commit to continuing to fund it.

The Guardian’s Peter Beaumount reported in February that sources in the organisation had suggested the decision to prioritise diplomacy when dealing with China was driven by hopes that such an approach would encourage the country to “be as open as possible in sharing new information” about the outbreak.

A spokesman for Boris Johnson said the UK had “no plans” to stop funding WHO, adding that the organisation had “an important role to play in leading the global health response”.

Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Mass said that strengthening the “under-funded” WHO was one of the best investments that could be made in the current situation.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said WHO was “needed more than ever” and there was no justification for Trump to withdraw the funding.

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