He's infantile, narcissistic and foolish to pull funding — but Trump isn't entirely wrong about the WHO

It's true the organisation has been too close to China. Nevertheless, there will be wide-reaching global consequences now the President has shirked his responsibility to the world

Emin Pasha
New York
Wednesday 15 April 2020 17:24 BST
WHO director general 'regrets' Trump's decision to halt US funding

Last night, Trump announced that he was ending US funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO). At a time when it’s important to pull together — especially considering that Covid-19 is about to hit developing countries in a very real way — the president has taken action against global cooperation. Many never dreamed that this is how America would respond to a global pandemic, but here we are.

There have been questions about how director-general of the WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, has handled the coronavirus pandemic. In mid-January, the WHO’s Twitter account tweeted that there was “no clear evidence” that Covid-19 could transfer from human to human. Many have worried that the organisation was complacent or too close to China, including Trump; he may be right on that point.

But Trump’s decision will further stretch what is already close to breaking point. And it’s worth noting that the WHO needs to have close relations with China, because there’s a high possibility new diseases could emerge from there (before the novel coronavirus, think SARS.) It makes sense to maintain a sensible friendship with a country at high risk of producing global disease; the last thing you want is that country withholding information, or refusing to cooperate, in dire circumstances.

There is no perfect response to a pandemic, whether swine flu, Ebola or anything else; hindsight and distance can and will judge. But an immutable fact is that Dr Tedros has the unimaginable task of trying to build a global coalition of nations to unite and combat this disease. Instead of focusing on this important task, the leadership of the WHO will now have to work out how to cope financially and structurally with losing its largest and most significant contributor. This is precisely the worst moment to throw an institution which deals with pandemics into disarray.

This new situation will require other, smaller countries to dig deeper into their resolve and pockets. Our global economy is currently forecast by the IMF to reach a recession as deep as the Great Depression of the 1930s, and unemployment rates across the developed world are spiking. Collectively, through our governments and our leaders, we will have to give more than we ever thought was possible to combat this. Key to these decisions are the leaders, whether elected or autocratic: they are the conscience of a nation and in times of crisis, their responses set the tempo for the response. A key example could be George W Bush’s 9/11 speech in a school gymnasium. His response was strong, but reassuring. In his several media responses, Trump has effectively thrown his toys out of his pram and made it clear that his main concern is re-election; in doing so, he has left a gaping void of leadership.

In America, Covid-19 will wreak more death and disarray. Nevertheless, the numbers of the dead (and mass graves), while horrifying, will not destroy its social fabric and way of life. America is proud and will endure. Other countries around the world are not so lucky.

Covid-19 will test a developed nations’ health infrastructure up to and beyond its breaking point, as proven by the US, UK, Italy and Spain. But, as New York and Italy’s recent claims about “flattening the curve” clearly illustrate, there is a curve. There will be an end to this, an end that can be roughly estimated with a fair degree of certainty. Developing countries do not and will not have this luxury. They will have to deal with secondary issues, if they have any capacity to respond at all — hand-washing and social distancing in a slum is impossible. Past experiences demonstrate this; notably in recent memory, cholera killed more people in Haiti than the earthquake of 2011.

Meanwhile, Trump is progressively further out of his depth, and desperate to pass the buck. Governors Cuomo and Newsome have been subject to his ire. Dr Fauci has fallen progressively out of favor. Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have been accused of everything from using impeachment to distract from coronavirus to taking advantage of the chaos. Even Obama has had a couple of insults flung his way. But most of Trump’s efforts to pass the buck have failed or fallen flat. He is, after all, the president, who keeps talking up his own authority. His only avenue left was the WHO — and in making the WHO his scapegoat, he not only debases himself and America, but also joins a very select group of world leaders.

There are many people who could have done more to stop this. There are lessons that the WHO could learn, and missteps that Dr Tedros perhaps did make. But, through inquiries and evaluation, his reckoning will come. At this moment in time, he is facing imaginable pressure, and he is providing the leadership that helps countries that listen to overcome Covid-19.

While Trump as a leader has long shown himself to be callous, infantile and narcissistic, this week he showed himself to be indisputably undeserving of the office of the presidency. For the rest of us, now is the time to come together. As Dr Tedros said himself this morning when responding to Trump’s decision to pull out, “This is a time for us to be united.”

Emin Pasha is the pseudonym of a United Nations diplomat working in New York

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