COVID-19: Trump Quits the World Health Organization; the Victim is the United States

After Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of WHO on Friday, the reputation of the agency has been damaged far less than the image of the United States, argues Barbara Crossette.

Trump returning to the White House on May 17, 2020, after a weekend at Camp David, in Maryland. On May 29, amidst the pandemic, the U.S. president announced he was withdrawing from the World Health Organization, the globe’s most important public health body. (Tia Dufour/White House)  

Two weeks after President Trump fired off a characteristically intemperate letter to the director-general of the World Health Organization, accusing him of incompetence in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, the reputation of the agency has been damaged far less than the image of the United States. That is, to judge by the reaction of global public health specialists.

In the days that followed, the four-page, prosecutorial-sounding letter to Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus created shockwaves. The letter ended with the charge that WHO’s “repeated missteps” in handling the response to the Covid-19 outbreak “have been extremely costly for the world.” It gave Tedros 30 days to reform the body.

Then Trump, increasingly cornered politically, didn’t even get to halftime. On Friday, he did the unimaginable: withdraw the U.S. from the world’s most important health organization.

Why? It was a Friday afternoon, when Washington swamp creatures think no one is paying attention. Minneapolis was on fire after the murder of a black man by white police, and all Trump could do was fan the flames. Twitter had to moderate his rant — “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — which so many people interpreted as racist.

More than 102,000 Americans are now dead in a Covid-19 pandemic that history will record as the result of a lack of planning, denial and finally the “open up” America push. The U.S. now has the highest rate of unemployment in its history, and new Covid-19 cases are beginning to spike.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) (UN Photo)

A few of Trump’s pals and his political advisers with their eye on the next presidential election are telling the media that they could see he will be in trouble, as polls were starting to show.

Trump’s big moment in space travel, the launching of the first “private enterprise” rocket to the intra-national space station, was canceled by bad weather. What did he do next for a distraction?

Trump had long been demeaning and threatening the WHO with the permanent loss of U.S. dues and donations. The U.S. total in dues and voluntary contributions would normally contribute about 22 percent to the entire WHO program budget (currently set at about $4 billion a year), but Trump withheld U.S. funds in 2019 and 2020.

Until now, the U.S. government and its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been leaders in global public health, and direct threats to the WHO, crowned by the precipitous withdrawal from the organization, were stunning and worrying.

Castigating China

David Nabarro, a British health and development expert whom Tedros appointed as special envoy on Covid-19 in February, said last week, before Trump’s impulsive action on Friday:

“Suddenly, we’re told, Sorry, we have to have a 20 percent cash cut,” Nabarro said in a virtual conversation event for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “We’re messing up. We haven’t done anything good.”

Nabarro had been the most formidable opponent to Tedros in 2017, when the 194 governments represented in the World Health Organization elected him director-general to a five-year term.

“You wonder,” Nabarro said. “What could possibly lead a country which has been such an important leader in global health on so many issues to just say, We’re out.

“I want to be told what we could have done better,” Nabarro said, “but not right in the  middle of this extraordinary, dangerous, damaging crisis.”

Fact-checkers have shredded Trump’s letter, including in The Lancet, an international professional medical journal. By now, a widely accepted analysis of the missive and the action that followed is that it was intended as much to castigate China as attack the WHO under Tedros. He is a former Ethiopian health minister from a continent that the American president has dismissed in scatological terms.

Tedros was caught in the crossfire as Trump moved targets, searching for scapegoats for a burgeoning American health catastrophe. Tedros, Trump said, was working too closely with the Chinese at the expense of transparency about the early progression of the disease, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

China’s President Xi Jinping visits Wuhan community, meets residents and frontline workers, March 10, 2020. (YouTube)

Forgotten was the praise Trump heaped on Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, for his managing of Covid-19 in those early days of the pandemic — or Trump’s own negligence in preparing the U.S. for it. With his popularity slipping, Trump may think he can ride anti-Chinese attacks to re-election victory in November, and Republican politicians are falling into line, as Dana Milbank reported recently in The Washington Post.

A lot has happened since Trump blasted Tedros, and the story is not ending well for Washington. On May 19, a day after the letter was dispatched, the World Health Assembly, the governing body of member nations that decides the rules for the WHO officials, adopted as part of its final agreement a long list of actions that member governments could take in dealing with the Covid-19 case.

The agreement also said “to initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States . . . a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the organization’s handling of the crisis. (Trump said he would have an independent American “review.”)

The U.S. delegation to the Assembly, led by Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, did not oppose the conclusions of the Assembly, apart from deleting two items that Trump’s anti-abortion advocates considered Trojan horses.

On May 26, the WHO halted trials of hydroxychloroquine, a drug touted and claimed to be taken by Trump against the virus that some studies have found to be potentially dangerous.

Michael Ryan, the organization’s chief of emergency responses, said in a briefing at the headquarters in Geneva that there was no indication of safety problems so far with hydroxychloroquine in trials being done for the WHO. He added, however, “We’re just acting on an abundance of caution based on the recent results of all the studies to ensure that we can continue safely.”

The next day, May 27, Thomas Zeltner, a former secretary of health of Switzerland and the director-general of the Swiss National Health Authority, announced the formation of an independent WHO Foundation, which will raise funds for the agency from the public.

Not Just a Trump-Tedros Story

Bill Gates at opening session of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Advocacy Group Meeting, Sept. 22, 2010
United Nations, New York (UN Photo)

Private sector and philanthropic foundations have been major supporters of United Nations work in many areas, so much that critics fear that these outsiders are holding certain positions to set agendas. Business Insider reported in 2018 that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been a leading backer of global health projects, spent $4.78 billion on charity in 2017 — the year Tedros became head of the WHO — and that most of the money went to projects run by the Gates.

Around the world, this is not just a story about Trump and Tedros.

In Singapore, Noeleen Heyzer, a former United Nations under secretary-general and the first woman to lead the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific as its executive secretary, said in a memo to PassBlue that broader issues are at stake. The UN Security Council is failing in its duties, she said.

“Leaders in South East Asia,” she wrote,”were hoping for stronger U.S. leadership in global health security at this historical moment, as they had seen in prior epidemics discussed by the Security Council like Ebola and HIV/AIDS.”

Instead, the Trump administration blocked a Security Council draft resolution calling for “an end to hostilities worldwide so that there could be a full focus on fighting Covid-19, a once -in-a-century pandemic,” Heyzer wrote. “[A]greement could not be reached because of President Trump’s . . . objecting to the reference to ‘the urgent need to support . . . all relevant entities of the United Nations system, including specialized health agencies’ in the fight against the pandemic.”

[The U.S. also wanted China named as the source of the virus.]

“The failure to reach agreement undermines the urgent need for a coordinated global response at a time our world faces an unprecedented crisis and is entering an extremely dangerous period,” Heyzer added. “This is the time for responsible multilateral leadership. The Security Council should be able to do its job and not be hampered by big-power rivalry and politics.”

In the U.S., numerous nongovernmental organizations have challenged assertions and data used by Trump in his letter to Tedros. A concise fact sheet, titled “Coronavirus Disinformation to Defund the World Health Organization,” has just been published jointly by Ipas and the International Women’s Health Coalition. It covers the mandate and scope of the WHO and its role in emergencies as well as Trump’s history of complaints about its work.

In London, the Science Media Center, which collects and disseminates relevant expert quotes, analyses and fact sheets on topical issues, recently published references to the Covid-19 crisis and the Trump letter to Tedros at the WHO.

Some recent postings on the site from specialists in public health and infectious diseases, often from researchers at leading British universities, illustrate that that there is scant credence given to key points in Trump’s letter to Tedros. Experts also explain rules imposed on the WHO officials by governments, including limits on access to national research facilities — and sometimes on country visits without invitations.

Almost universally, contributors to the site, while acknowledging criticisms that can be made about the WHO, see Trump’s actions as political and not in the interest of public health.

The post Trump Quits the World Health Organization. The Victim Is the United States. appeared first on PassBlue.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and before that its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” and “The Great Hill Stations of Asia.” Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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12 comments for “COVID-19: Trump Quits the World Health Organization; the Victim is the United States

    June 1, 2020 at 15:50

    Would it be fair to call Trump “a quitter?”

  2. elmerfudzie
    June 1, 2020 at 12:33

    I have a vague idea that an armageddon hangs over the world today. It began with the global COVID shut down. All the usual suspects have gathered into one (war) room, impending financial collapse from an unrestrained derivatives market, the gathering up of gold stores by sovereign nations, military encirclement of potential adversaries, black-op’s from the WTC bombing in ’93, Oklahoma city then 911, withdrawal from the WHO and bio warfare allegations. That vagueness became clear as crystal after I read an article at defenceone published over two years ago and written by Elsa Kania. In summary, The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) are making a full court press effort to move the entire military strategy from one of “informatized” warfare into “intelligentized” warfare. This reality made possible by unanticipated, and in military terms, time sensitive discoveries accomplished by Artificial Intelligence computer programming that performs independent of human creativity and or design. One of Xi’s general’s by the name of Liu Guozhi who heads up the Science and Technology Commission, warned of a profound military revolution on the horizon. If China does not engage in “the art of “disruption technology” (both electromagnetic and World Wide Web) then it will be a victim of it and…again a quote “we must seize the opportunity to change paradigms. If you don’t disrupt, you’ll be disrupted!” end quote. Further, Xi Jinping himself called for the acceleration of AI -R & D within the sphere of “intelligentization.” The Chinese currently have the largest AI research park in the world.

    In my view, the final nail in the coffin for peaceful co-existence came with another remark made by PLA’s Lt. Gen. Liu, that human-machine hybrid intelligence will be the highest form of future intelligence, to remove humans from key aspects of command decision-making because there’s a problem with, get this, centralized authority and concerns over controllability!

    AI is the last demon to enter the war room. Will a first strike now become a military necessity against China’s huge AI facility?

  3. Vera Gottlieb
    June 1, 2020 at 10:29

    To hell with the US AND Trump!!!

  4. Michael Kent
    June 1, 2020 at 08:46

    And now the biggest funder of WHO is Bill Gates. Google what Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has to say about Gates.

    Philanthropist or Mad Scientist?

    • Tom L
      June 2, 2020 at 09:07

      Right. The WHO does not need Trump’s support. He gets to throw red meat to his base and Bill Gates and Big Pharma keep doing what they have been doing with fewer strings attached. It’s a win win.
      “Philanthropist or Mad Scientist?” Neither.

  5. May 31, 2020 at 17:13

    “The Security Council should be able to do its job and not be hampered by big-power rivalry and politics.”
    As I do not want the WHO, funded and dominated by Bill Gates to become the relevant political world force to dictate the world, where to go, – I am in agreement with Trumps decision. One must understand and consider, that Bill Gates and much of the leaders of UN and WHO are members of the old transatlantic elites – opposed to Trump – and set on trying everything to prevent his re-election.
    Barbara Crossette seems to me to be – at least – close to these circles.
    Just the same, I do appreciate, that Consortium News does bring articles and points of view from differing perspectives. That’s exactly, what makes good journalism. Thank you CN.

    • Bob Van Noy
      June 1, 2020 at 08:07

      Many thanks Albert Kath and Consortiumnews. I think you’re exactly right Mr. Kath. One of the necessary features to accurate reading of Journalism is to be able to compare and contrast one’s information and decide for one’s self which is true. It’s not a game, it’s necessary, so I come down on your side of reading this article. But, I’m a long time skeptic of news since November, 22nd 1963…

    • rosemerry
      June 1, 2020 at 18:43

      I agree on the dangers of Bill Gates and his influence on the WHO and other bodies, but the USA in general has far too much influence, rarely beneficial for the world, on all the world bodies it is part of including the UNSC, where it regularly exerts its veto on any criticism of Israel’s illegal behavior.
      The WHO can still exert leadership and give advice, and certainly Trump’s interference is political and personal not professional, true or helpful to the USA or anyone else without an axe to grind.

    May 31, 2020 at 15:15

    The photos of Marines in their dress uniforms around the White House remind me very much of 1960s’ Chicago and its uninformed Andy Frain ushers

    They were rental service help for all kinds of public events.

    Kind of an embarrassing come-down from what the Marines think they represent.

  7. May 31, 2020 at 09:15

    With over 6 million confirmed cases of Covid 19 world wide and with almost 2 million of those confirmed cases in the United States, leave it to Trump to place the blame on someone else for his own impotence and inadequacies…

    Here is a link to the Covid 19 Dashboard: see:

  8. John R
    May 31, 2020 at 07:43

    How long will it take to repair the damage done to our nation by the presidency of the Orange buffoon ? Is it even possible ?

  9. Jeff Harrison
    May 30, 2020 at 22:03

    Over on Tass, they have an article suggesting that the US’s apparent new habit of quitting international agreements might well become much more common around the world. This would be a bad thing. What Donnie Murdo is doing is actual isolationism. The calls one hears (only occasionally in the US) for the US to stop intervening everywhere in the world is not isolationism. I realize that Donnie Murdo simply wants to get “a better deal” but he’s leaving agreements with nothing to go to. He hasn’t gotten anything out of Iran in three years and won’t get a “better” deal. He seems to think that just because he wants a new SALT treaty that includes China that he can make it happen. China, however, has little incentive to agree to much with such an unreliable partner as the US and little incentive to hobble their own ability to defend themselves from from an aggressive rogue state as the US. There will be long term consequences to the US from this latest example of American unilateral stupidity. The US needs WHO more than WHO needs the US.

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