Can the WHO Restore Credibility After Its Handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

few days ago, President Donald Trump came out and announced that the United States was suspending its funding of the World Health Organization (WHO). Among the main reasons for his decision, Trump cited the WHO’s “mismanaging” of the spread of the epidemic and its heavy pro-China slant. The United States is the most important contributor to the WHO’s budget, way ahead of China, Japan and Germany. The end of American contributions would deprive the WHO of a fifth of its funds.

Trump’s announcement provoked a global outcry and widespread condemnation. The Guardian called it “an extraordinary act of moral abdication and international vandalism at a time when the world desperately needs to find means of working together to combat an unprecedented global threat.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was more measured, noting that “now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences.” Leaders of EU countries were swift in coming out in support of the WHO, pledging they would do whatever they could to support its efforts to deal with the crisis.

The response is understandable, but also misleading. To be sure, Trump’s anti-WHO campaign is largely intended to deflect from his own abysmal response to the crisis. For weeks, his administration wasted precious time to prepare the United States for what was bound to come. For weeks, the president belittled and trivialized the extent of the threat, claiming that the United States was fully prepared to deal with its impact.

As it turned out, it was not, and Trump should be held fully responsible for what he said — and failed to do. As should be all of his toadies and acolytes in Congress and the right-wing media who went out of their way to dismiss COVID-19 as a “hoax” fabricated by the liberal media and the Democrats in order to damage the president. As it turned out, COVID-19 was anything but a hoax, and if anybody did damage the president’s image, it was Trump himself.

Beijing’s Bidding

All of these things are public knowledge. Yet when it comes to the WHO, Trump, unfortunately, has a point. As the German news magazine Der Spiegel has recently pointed out, the WHO is hardly the impartial organization one would expect — as the magazine puts it, the WHO has a “China problem.” Under its general secretary, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, the WHO appears to have become less impartial — and more politicized — than one would expect from an international body. According to Der Spiegel, in the first weeks after the outbreak of the epidemic in Wuhan, the WHO systematically played down its potential extent, largely, one might suspect, in line with Beijing’s concerns about the impact of a crisis on its economy and, particularly, export trade.

In late January, for instance, the organization’s official website stated that it advised “that measures to limit the risk of exportation or importation of the disease should be implemented, without unnecessary restrictions of international traffic.” A week or so later, the secretary general of the WHO went on record charging that there “was no need for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.” These are hardly recommendations that fall into the prerogatives of the WHO. Worse, it has opened the organization vulnerable to the not entirely unreasonable charge that it was doing Beijing’s bidding.