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Let’s Recognize Trump’s WHO Criticism for What it Is: Political Blame-shifting

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In recent days, President Trump is scapegoating others to explain away the slow U.S. response to COVID-19 threat.  President Trump is engaged in an ineffective campaign to avoid responsibility, and in doing so, will learn nothing about responding to a public health threat costing thousands of lives. 

From blaming the Chinese, then the Obama Administration, President Trump, backed by far-right media, has begun pointing the finger at the World Health Organization (WHO) and its Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom. On Tuesday, he threatened to cut U.S funding to the agency, accusing it of being slow to act and “too China-centric.”

The U.S. does provide a significant share of the WHO’s budget, that leverages the majority of funding from other countries.  Setting aside the wrongheadedness of reducing global health funding during a pandemic, Trump’s case seems to hinge on little more than veiled xenophobia and truth twisting.

 Here are the facts.

  • The WHO began working with the CDC on Jan. 1 — one day after China disclosed the virus — and sent out advisories to worldwide public health leaders beginning Jan. 5. Its scientists first entered Wuhan on Jan. 20, and on Jan. 23 it warned of a 4 percent death rate and confirmed human-to-human transmission. Tedros said at the time that while the virus had not by definition become a global health emergency. “It may yet become one.”
  • Meanwhile, by the end of January, President Trump had been warned by White House advisers that coronavirus had the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and derail the U.S. economy, unless tough action is taken immediately. 
  • On February 6, Dr. Tedros announced 250,000 diagnostic tests shipped to 70 laboratories around the world. He also secured permission for a dozen scientists, including from the CDC, to tour the affected areas in China from Feb. 16 to Feb. 24. 
  • On March 11, WHO declared a pandemic, and Dr. Tedros said, “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action.” 
  • On March 18, WHO launched a treatment study called the “solidarity trial” in 45 countries and began enrolling patients shortly after.
  • On March 25, Trump tweeted: “The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success. The real people want to get back to work ASAP. We will be stronger than ever before!” 

And accusations around WHO’s relationship with China? 

WHO does what every multilateral agency and every multinational organization does with China. They walk the tightrope. 

“It’s a balancing act,” says Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “WHO has to work within a certain set of confines. It’s easy to say he should have been a little bit tougher, but…if he had been aggressive with China and criticized them for not being more open in December, China could have just said buzz off and we’ll give you nothing. Would the world be better off it that happened? I don’t think so.” 

Trump’s scapegoating of WHO is a political survival strategy. But it is life and death for the people of the world who depend on WHO every day to fight COVID-19, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other epidemics with tests, treatments and vaccines.

If we are successful in taming COVID-19 this spring, it will certainly make an eventual comeback.

And when that happens, WHO will be our best hope. So we had better protect it from politics.

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