The story so far: As the toll from the COVID-19 pandemic rose across much of the world, the United States President Donald Trump became more strident in his criticism of the role of the World Health Organisation (WHO). On April 7, Mr. Trump tweeted that WHO “really blew it” and that the organisation was “very China centric”, this despite it being largely funded by the U.S. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump said he was halting funding to WHO pending a review. He accused WHO of mismanaging the COVID-19 crisis and said it had failed to vet information and share it in a timely and transparent manner. He told a news conference at the White House, “... I am directing my administration to halt funding while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”
When and why was the WHO set up?
It is important to understand the context in which WHO functions to understand the current situation around its funding. WHO, a United Nations agency created in 1948, is headquartered in Geneva, and was founded to coordinate and direct the UN’s global health effort. It has no authority over its 194-member countries and, as is typical for UN agencies, depends on member contributions to carry out its work. Also, as is often the case with UN agencies, WHO is not immune to political motivations and an inertia that often comes with large bureaucracies. Yet, in this instance, critics and several public health academics have said that Mr. Trump’s attack of the organisation is misplaced.
Was WHO slow in alerting the world about COVID-19?
It took till about the middle of January for WHO to suggest human-to-human transmission of the virus, toeing the China line for the first few weeks of the year, as per reports. Even then, in the first two weeks of the year and two weeks after it was notified of the virus, WHO had qualified its statement by saying there was “no clear evidence” of such transmission, The Washington Post reported . The U.S. was formally notified by China on January 3 of the coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, as early as January 10 and 11, WHO had put out guidance notes on the virus, according to The Guardian .
China locked down the city of Wuhan on January 23. On January 23, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that while the emergency was for China and not for the world, it had the potential to become global in scale. The body’s experts were divided on whether or not there was a global emergency at the time, as per reports, and it took until January 30 for them to conclude deliberations and declare a global emergency.
Yet, nearly a month later, on February 25, Mr. Trump tweeted that the coronavirus in the U.S. was “very much under control”. It was only on March 13 that he declared a national emergency over the coronavirus.
How much does the U.S. give WHO?
The U.S. is the WHO’s largest contributor. The organisation’s funding is of two types — assessments or member dues and voluntary contributions. The total funds for the 2020-2021 biennium included $957 million in assessments and $4.9 billion in voluntary contributions. Over the last decade, the U.S.’s assessed contributions have been in the $107-$119 million range while voluntary contributions have been in the $102-$402 million range, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-focused non-profit.
For the 2018 and 2019 biennium, the U.S. contributed about 20% of WHO’s budget, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) report . This money went as assessment fees ($237 million) or pledges towards programmes (over $656 million) from voluntary contributions. The major share of the U.S. programmatic funding went towards polio eradication ($158 million), increasing access to essential health and human services ($100 million) and vaccine-preventable disease ($44 million), according to the NPR.
Will the U.S. stand affect WHO’s functioning?
The short answer is, yes, a funding freeze is highly likely to negatively impact WHO’s functioning for a short while at least, given the significant contribution the U.S. makes. However, we do not yet know what the impact will be and for how long.
Additionally, it is unclear if Mr. Trump has the authority to withhold funding that has already been committed. Congressional Democrats have said that he does not have this authority and is criticising WHO as a means to deflect criticism of how he has handled the crisis. The U.S. has around 700,000 known cases of COVID-19 over 35,000 deaths due to the disease.
Dr. Tedros has asked countries to stop politicising the virus. He also said WHO regrets the U.S. decision and is reviewing the impact of American funds being withdrawn. WHO, he said, would work with its partners to fill any financial gaps that arise so the “work continues uninterrupted”.