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In a move aimed at assigning blame for the start of the coronavirus pandemic, rather than working to figure out how to end it, President Donald Trump announced Tuesday evening during his nightly nationally televised gripe session that the U.S. is “suspending” payments to the World Health Organization. “Today I am instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” Trump said from the Rose Garden. In typical Trump fashion, it’s not totally clear what that means in practical terms, given the appropriation would fall under the purview of Congress. Congress has chosen to keep U.S. funding levels for the WHO relatively steady over the past several years, topping $400 million with some additional voluntary funding added on when needed, like, say, during a pandemic.
Trump, in a bizarrely persistent psychological tic, basically took word-for-word criticisms leveled at him and foisted them on his opponents, this time the WHO. “The reality is that the WHO failed to adequately obtain, vet, and share information in a timely and transparent fashion,” Trump said. “You look all over the world, tremendous death and economic devastation because those tasked with protecting us by being truthful and transparent failed to do so. It would have been so easy to be truthful. And so much death has been caused by their mistakes.”
The WHO and its leader, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have faced criticism from beyond the Trump administration for the international body’s early response to the coronavirus that is believed to have originated around Wuhan, China. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems fair to say that everyone involved could have done more, the WHO included. Trump says the organization should have been more forthcoming, sounded the alarm louder, chastised and cajoled China into being better than it is. It’s a big ask, one that even the world’s most powerful nations and corporations shy away from in the face of Beijing’s thin skin and economic might. But even if the alarm had been louder, would the Trump administration have heeded it earlier? Given the response to what concerns were raised, it seems almost certainly not. What information was available was clear enough, early enough, to make a difference, but it was disregarded by a president that does not possess the capacity for long-term strategic thinking.
Shrugging off responsibility for things that go wrong is Trump’s political modus operandi, but bundling blame and outsourcing it to the WHO is going to be part of a larger Trump campaign strategy of blaming everyone and everything in his path to reelection as China-complicit. Does the WHO play ball, so to speak, with China? Absolutely. The organization, for better or worse, is a deeply political body, not necessarily in its intent but in its functioning. It must operate across hundreds of member states, navigating complex political histories and allegiances to remain relevant but also reliable enough to get much-needed information. Without much tangible authority to punish, it must rely on prodding and pleasantries. Ironically, the actual solution to the WHO’s shortcomings exposed by the pandemic is likely more authority, not less. More capacity, not less. But there’s no political will for that, even now when the world’s on fire.