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Senators level blame at WHO, Trump in hearing on COVID-19 response

UPDATED: Thu., June 18, 2020

Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, elbow bumps James Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, prior to the start of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday. on “U.S. International Pandemic Preparedness” in the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 18, 2020.  (Caroline Brehman)
Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, elbow bumps James Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, prior to the start of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday. on “U.S. International Pandemic Preparedness” in the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Caroline Brehman)

WASHINGTON – As the numbers of infections and deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19 continue to climb, Senators questioned Trump administration officials Thursday about the government’s response to the crisis and preparedness for future pandemics.

The Senate had previously convened a panel of experts to address the U.S. response to the virus, but Thursday’s hearing turned lawmakers’ attention to relations with other countries and the international organizations meant to respond to global health crises.

“We have been right to focus on our domestic response to this pandemic,” said Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican who chairs the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But we ignore the spread overseas at our own peril.”

The committee’s Republican members criticized the World Health Organization’s response to the pandemic, which they saw as slow and overly deferential to China, while Democrats took jabs at President Trump’s own praise of China in the early weeks of the pandemic and his move to withdraw from the WHO.

“We are not here to demean, criticize, or condemn the WHO,” Risch said in his opening statement. “Rather, what we’re here to do is to have a fair analysis of what the response was and how their structure is constructed that has caused the weaknesses we have.”

But his colleagues wasted little time in doing just that, accusing the United Nations health agency of bending to the influence of China, where the virus originated before spreading around the world in late 2019.

“I believe the World Health Organization failed the American people,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “I believe [the WHO] blindly accepted China’s leaders’ false reporting and understated the threat of the disease. They repeatedly praised China for transparency and spread inaccurate and misleading information.”

Barrasso cited statements from the WHO earlier this year as well as the confusion generated last week when the global body said infected people without symptoms rarely spread the disease, then reversed the statement the next day.

These mistakes, Barrasso said, justified Trump’s decision in April to temporarily suspend funds to the WHO. In a May 18 letter to Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Trump threatened to permanently cut funding if the body did not “commit to major substantive improvements” within 30 days.

The U.S. contributes roughly 15 percent of the organization’s annual budget. Trump’s letter did not specify what changes the U.S. is demanding, and Democrats on the committee argued that leaving the WHO would mean giving up the leverage needed to make changes.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., called the WHO “an enormously frustrating organization, like every international organization,” but he urged the administration to reform the agency from the inside.

“I think it always goes worse for the world if the U.S. isn’t involved,” Kaine said, “and I think it generally goes worse for us as well.”

Risch was more measured than Barrasso in his criticism – “The WHO has done great work in many respects,” he said in his opening statement – but he agreed there was a lot of work to be done both to address COVID-19 and to prepare for future pandemics.

“I’ve got contacts with the WHO,” said Risch, who according to an aide spoke with Tedros in April. “And your suggestion that our talk of withdrawing funds might get their attention, I can assure you it has gotten their attention.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., pointed to Trump’s statements as late as April praising China’s response to the pandemic to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy and argued that withdrawing from the WHO would further empower America’s biggest geopolitical rival.

“There’s one country that is desperate for the United States to leave the WHO and that’s China,” Murphy said. “They are going to fill this vacuum, they are going to put in the money that we have withdrawn, and even if we try to rejoin in 2021, it’s going to be under fundamentally different terms because China will be much more influential.”

Two other Democrats, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, also raised concerns about how China has wielded the distribution of personal protective equipment as a political tool, a tactic that has been called “mask diplomacy.”

James Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, agreed: “The reality is China has used this pandemic to advance their strategic interests around the world.”

Toward the end of the hearing, Risch repeatedly asked a straightforward question to the witnesses, who represented the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Health and Human Services Department.

“When the fire alarm goes off, who responds?” he asked. “Who’s the fire department?”

After a few “non-answers” from the panel that didn’t satisfy the chairman, USAID Counselor Chris Milligan explained that the current U.S. response system wasn’t designed for a problem on the scale of COVID-19.

“A pandemic is not really a health crisis,” Milligan said. “It’s a governance crisis.”

”The only model we currently have is the one that we’re suggesting needs to be reformed. … It works well for the regional stage, but we don’t have a model for the pandemic stage.”

Risch said Thursday’s panel would be just the first of “a number” of hearings to help refine the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act, a bill he has introduced with Murphy and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, to restructure leadership and provide $3 billion in funding for U.S. global health security efforts over the next five years.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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