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Experts: Trump’s threats to WHO could undercut global health

UPDATED: Tue., May 19, 2020

In this Monday, March 9, 2020  photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization speaks during a news conference on updates regarding the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (Salvatore Di Nolfi / associated press)
In this Monday, March 9, 2020 photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization speaks during a news conference on updates regarding the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (Salvatore Di Nolfi / associated press)
By Maria Cheng and Jamey Keaten Associated Press

GENEVA – U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks on the World Health Organization are hurting its ability to protect global health, medical experts said Tuesday, as many WHO member states rallied around the U.N. health agency – even as they urged a look into its coordination of the global response to the coronavirus.

Political sniping on issues like war in Ukraine and Taiwan’s status pockmarked a second and final day of the WHO’s annual assembly, which nonetheless produced a unanimous resolution that backs cooperation to find tools to address COVID-19 and inspect the world’s response to it, among other things.

World leaders like the presidents of the European Commission and Colombia beamed in by video conference, hours after Trump made public his letter sent Monday to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus blasting “repeated missteps” of the agency as “very costly for the world.”

Tedros, an Ethiopian who goes by his first name, appeared determined to rise above the new bout of U.S. criticism, saying “WHO’s focus now is fighting the pandemic with every tool at our disposal. Our focus is on saving lives. At the end of the day, what matters is life.”

“Dark and difficult days may lie ahead but guided by science together, we will overcome,” Tedros said. “Let hope be the antidote to fear.”

The European Union, the resolution’s chief architect, urged countries to support WHO in the wake of Trump’s continued attacks. European Commission spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson said now wasn’t “the time for finger-pointing or undermining multilateral cooperation.”

The resolution, among other things, calls on Tedros to initiate “at the earliest appropriate moment … an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” that would “review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how, when or by whom that evaluation will be conducted. China, where the outbreak emerged, expressed support for such a review, but said it should wait until after the pandemic is over.

While airing a few reservations, the U.S. nevertheless didn’t oppose the resolution.

The resolution also pointed to the “role of extensive immunization against COVID-19 as a global public good,” and called for participants to “work collaboratively” to produce “safe, effective, quality, affordable diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines and vaccines” for the COVID-19 response.

“This is the time for science and solidarity. This is the time for all humanity to rally around a common cause,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “And you can count on Europe to always play for the team.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said “together we stress the central role of the World Health Organization in international health management” and called for it to be strengthened.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said simply: “I support WHO and Dr. Tedros so that they lead and build on these lessons learned, so that they can help us to be better prepared for future challenges.”

Health experts said Trump’s increasing attacks on WHO for its handling of the coronavirus demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the U.N. agency’s role and could ultimately serve to weaken global health.

In his letter, Trump threatened to permanently cut U.S. funding to WHO unless the agency commits to “substantive improvements” in the next 30 days.

“I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America’s interests,” he wrote. The U.S. is the WHO’s biggest donor, providing about $450 million a year.

Devi Sridhar, a professor of global health at the University of Edinburgh, said the letter was likely written for Trump’s political base and meant to deflect blame for the virus’ devastating impact in the U.S., which has by far the most infections and virus deaths in the world.

“China and the U.S. are fighting it out like divorced parents while WHO is the child caught in the middle, trying not to pick sides,” she said.

“President Trump doesn’t understand what the WHO can and cannot do,” she said, explaining that it sets international standards and is driven by its member countries. “If he thinks they need more power, then member states should agree and delegate it more.”

Michael Head, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, said much of what Trump was demanding was beyond WHO’s intended scope. He said that WHO provides expert guidance, “not enforcement by law.”

Head noted that there are clear gaps in governance elsewhere that have allowed COVID-19 to spread – notably in the U.S., which has seen 1.5 million infections and more than 90,000 deaths linked to COVID-19.

Trump has repeatedly accused WHO of being unduly influenced by China, and wrote that the agency has been “curiously insistent” on praising the country’s “alleged transparency.”

WHO acknowledged receipt of Trump’s missive and said it was “considering the contents of the letter.” The agency has previously emphasized that it declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30, when there were fewer than 100 cases of coronavirus outside of China.

When that declaration was made, Tedros said China was setting a new standard for outbreak response. He said the world owed China gratitude for the way it bought other nations time to plan, with the extraordinary measures it was taking to contain the virus.

Trump’s letter also cited former WHO chief Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland as an example of a leader who stood up to China. In 2003, Brundtland called out China for its cover-up of the SARS outbreak and issued travel recommendations warning against travel to several Chinese cities. Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister, dismissed Trump’s criticisms of Tedros in a statement Tuesday.

“The last thing we need is to attack the WHO,” she said. WHO has both the necessary experience and authorizations to oversee and share information and at the same time assist all countries to overcome the ongoing corona crisis.”

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