Thousands of Americans would be alive today if President Donald Trump had spent more time listening to the World Health Organization instead of trying to destroy it.
Trump’s announcement that he will halt U.S. funding for the WHO just as the world is facing a raging pandemic is a dangerous attempt to find a scapegoat for his own failings. It is like taking away a fire department’s trucks in the middle of a blaze.
Many Americans know nothing about the WHO, but its worldwide budget (of which the United States pays about one-fifth) is less than that of some American hospital centers. Yet it is charged with fighting Ebola and polio, saving children’s lives and keeping the world safe from pandemics like this one.
Trump says that he is cutting the funds while his administration reviews the WHO’s handling of the coronavirus. His own pandemic preparedness plan, which he characteristically has failed to implement, called for building support for the WHO — because it’s a critical player to keep Americans safe.
Yes, some of the complaints about the WHO are valid, and I’ve made them myself. It has been too cozy with China, it made some wrong calls on the coronavirus early on (such as doubting Jan. 14 that there was human-to-human transmission), and it should stop blocking participation by Taiwan. But it has still managed the coronavirus crisis far better than the Trump administration.
The WHO tweeted its first warning about the coronavirus as early as Jan. 4 and then rang alarm bells, culminating at the end of that month when it declared a “public health emergency of international concern.” It developed an effective diagnostic test for the coronavirus that is used in dozens of countries worldwide, while the United States still cannot manage adequate testing.
In late January and February, the WHO issued increasingly urgent warnings about the coronavirus. Trump ignored them, instead insisting that it was “totally under control,” predicted the number of infections would drop, declared that “it’s going to disappear” and consistently downplayed the virus while talking up the stock market.
Trump’s passivity — even as the WHO and his own advisers warned him of the risks — squandered the chance to acquire more personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses. His likening of COVID-19 to the flu led people to join public gatherings like Mardi Gras and Florida spring break, and that is one reason the United States has had 80 deaths per 1 million inhabitants from COVID-19, compared with 4 in South Korea and fewer than 1 in Taiwan.
I’ve known the WHO’s director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for almost 20 years and have had disagreements with him, largely over his accommodation of dictators. But I have deeply admired his passion for battling malaria, malnutrition and maternal mortality, and I’ve seen his work save lives. Growing up in Ethiopia, he lost a younger brother, Yemaine, apparently to measles, and that left him with a deep commitment to improve health care access.
The WHO is bureaucratic, frustrating, timid — and indispensable. No other organization can fill its international role overseeing the fight against disease. It has battled an outbreak of Ebola since last year in Congo, and that’s one reason we haven’t had Ebola cases in the United States.
Every day, the WHO saves lives. It has promoted safe childbirth, and the number of women dying in childbirth has been cut almost in half over 25 years. It fights female genital mutilation and helps women with obstetric fistula. It is struggling to eliminate cervical cancer. It is part of the campaign against polio.
Normally, an American president is a leader in global health, and Democrats and Republicans have often cooperated on a humanitarian agenda. President George W. Bush started a program against HIV/AIDS called PEPFAR that has saved 17 million lives. President Barack Obama helped lead the global effort to end the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-16.
In contrast, Trump has provided zero global leadership against the coronavirus, and he is now trying to crush the one organization providing such leadership.
(Readers have asked how they can contribute to help ease the suffering from COVID-19. Stay tuned: I’ll have a column at the end of next week with five suggestions.)
Trump’s main complaint about the WHO is that it is too close to China, and there’s some truth to that — but Trump himself fawned over China’s response to the pandemic.
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” Trump tweeted on Jan. 24. “I want to thank President Xi.”
If I seem angry, it’s because I’ve seen too many women dying in childbirth in poor countries, too many children dying of diarrhea, too much leprosy. Gutting the WHO will mean more kids dying of malnutrition, more moms dying of cervical cancer, and the coronavirus infecting more people in more countries — impairing the pandemic response, which may well cost even more American lives. And all because an American president is seeking a scapegoat for his own ineptitude.
Yes, Americans have died unnecessarily from COVID-19, and I’ve been seared by my own reporting in “hot zones” of New York hospitals. But if Trump insists on holding people accountable, he needn’t denounce the WHO. He can gaze in the mirror.