Donald Trump’s declared suspension of funding of the World Health Organisation in the midst of a pandemic is confirmation – if any were needed – that he is in search of scapegoats for his administration’s much delayed and chaotic response to the crisis.
The US is the WHO’s biggest donor, with funding over $400m a year in both assessed contributions (membership fees) and donations – though it is actually $200m in arrears.
Theoretically the White House cannot block funding of international institutions mandated by Congress. But the administration has found ways around such constitutional hurdles on other issues – by simply failing to disburse funds or apply sanctions, for example.
The funding could be formally rescinded, but that would require Senate approval, or “reprogrammed” by being diverted to another purpose that the White House could argue is consistent with the will of Congress.
“Whatever form it takes, this is a deeply shortsighted and dangerous decision – at any time, let alone during a … pandemic,” said Alexandra Phelan, assistant professor at the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.
Related: Trump halts World Health Organization funding over coronavirus ‘failure’
“It’s a bizarre decision that would be profoundly detrimental to global public health,” said Gavin Yamey, the director of Duke University’s center for policy impact in global health. “He’s trying to distract from his own errors that have led to the worst government response to Covid-19 on Earth.”
Public health officials generally agree that the WHO’s response to the pandemic has not been perfect, but much improved on the organisation’s lambasted performance in the face of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and immeasurably better than how the US has handled Covid-19.
The WHO first raised the alert over the Wuhan outbreak on 5 January, and beginning on 7 January it was briefing public health officials from the US and other national governments on the outbreak in regular teleconference calls. On 9 January the WHO distributed guidance to member states for their own risk assessment and planning.
Trump and his supporters have focused on a 14 January WHO tweet reporting the findings of preliminary Chinese studies suggesting “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission.
While the WHO was obliged to report on the latest findings of a member state at the source of the outbreak, its officials told their counterparts in technical briefings on 10 and 11 January, and briefed the press on 14 January, that human-to-human transmission was still a strong possibility given the experience of past coronavirus epidemics and urged suitable precautions.
Yamey said it was ridiculous to point to a single tweet early in the pandemic as the fixed position of the WHO. “The whole point of science is that we have initial hypotheses and initial ideas, and we update those ideas as more and more data emerges,” he said.
On 23 January the WHO updated its account of the coronavirus threat, confirming human-to-human transmission and warning that the global risk was high. One week later it formally declared a global emergency.
Announcing the cut in funding on Tuesday, Trump accused the WHO of failing to send its experts to the source of the outbreak to gather samples. That failure decisively set back the effect to contain the pandemic, he claimed.
In fact Beijing blocked a WHO delegation from visiting Wuhan in the first weeks of the outbreak. The WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had to fly to Beijing to meet Xi Jinping on 29 January to negotiate entry and information sharing. A WHO team was allowed to visit Wuhan on 22 February. Tedros has been criticised for his flattery of Xi and the Chinese response, in the face of Beijing’s obstructionism and cover-up attempts. His defenders said that such diplomacy was the price for entry.
Trump did more than his own fair share of Xi flattery. On 24 January, the president tweeted “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus … The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”
The claim that the delay in the WHO acquiring samples crippled the international response is also false. Chinese scientists publicly released the genetic sequence of Covid-19 on 11 January.
By early February the WHO was in a position to distribute a Covid-19 test worldwide, but the US government opted not to have it fast-tracked through approval. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) instead produced its own test at about the same time, but it was flawed and had to be recalled. US testing would be set back more than six weeks compared to the rest of the world.
While virtually no testing was under way in the US throughout February, Trump assumed the consequently low number of confirmed US cases meant that his country had somehow escaped. “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” he boasted on 24 February, nearly a month after the WHO declaration of emergency. “We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health [Organisation] have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
Trump’s turn against the WHO only gathered pace over the past week, as more and more reports emerged of the administration’s own complacent and dysfunctional response.
The impact of a block on US funds is likely to mitigated by other countries, who have almost unanimously expressed confidence in the WHO, stepping up their own financial backing. The UK, for example, has announced £200m in new funding for international efforts to contain and combat the pandemic, of which £65m is earmarked for the WHO.
How well Trump’s scapegoating of the WHO will play in the US election is impossible to predict, but on the world stage it will undoubtedly be seen as yet another step in an accelerating US abdication of leadership on the world stage.