Quitting World Health Organization Risks American Lives
Predictably petulant Trump tries to shift blame for his pathetic COVID response.
To do this in the middle of a pandemic is breathtakingly dangerous.Nancy Cox, former CDC virologist
When I was a boy, there was an old saying: “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” It had to do with emotionally overreacting to something and purposely eschewing a simple solution…and achieving a very bad outcome.
It was with this boyhood saying in mind that I read the news that President Donald Trump on May 29 announced that “we will be terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization.” Even though Trump threatened to withdraw 11 days earlier unless “reforms” were made, the announcement “blindsided” White House staffers and cabinet members.
The good news is that it won’t happen tomorrow, or even by the November election (one more reason to vote!). Withdrawing from the WHO is an unwieldy process that requires a year’s notice, a “multiagency” review and the collection of unpaid dues. But on Monday, June 22, the White House made it clear there would be no second thoughts. “The president is moving toward a fast withdrawal,” said one senior administration official.
According to the investigative website Pro Publica, health officials and diplomats were given marching orders that “they must justify any engagement with the WHO as being necessary for national security and public health safety.”
Bill Gates “Flummoxed” By the Decision
The Geneva-based WHO is funded by a diverse group of nation-states, foundations and health alliances. It maintains an office at the United Nations. The US is the biggest donor to the WHO, contributing more than $400 million in 2019, or roughly 15% of WHO’s annual budget.
The second largest benefactor is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It provides 9.8% of the WHO’s annual funding. When informed by a statnews.com journalist that the US was withdrawing from WHO, Gates expressed grave disappointment. “WHO is important for all the global health work we do,” remarked Gates. “The devastating impact of COVID-19 is a huge reminder of how vulnerable we are to disease.”
Gates raised a particular concern about the WHO’s effort to eradicate polio. About one-third of US funding to the WHO supports the polio eradication effort and it’s about to cross the finish line.
“How would you do it without WHO,” Gates mused. “In the case of polio, I can’t imagine how that would work.”
Trump’s Deadly Gambit
Trump’s motives to leave the WHO have little to do with reforms, though most agree changes could be made. First of all, Trump’s nationalist instincts in hanging a “closed” sign at America’s shores shredded the finely-tuned 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and stymied US efforts to fight climate change by dropping out of the Paris Agreement. The WHO withdrawal fits perfectly in this narrative.
Secondly, and most obviously, Trump needs a scapegoat for America’s chaotic and ineffective response to the coronavirus pandemic. To Trump, blaming WHO is worth a shot. Amazingly, while many other countries are getting back to some semblance of normalcy, America has taken two steps backwards and leads the world in new infections.
Thirdly, and perhaps most unheralded, Narcissistic Trump disdains powerful organizations he can’t control. His resentment of NATO, supposedly based on the fantasy that member-nations don’t pay their fair share, is one example. (Has it occurred to the WHO that some well-placed flattery in Trump’s direction can salvage this crisis?)
Here’s the Danger for Americans
Did I say crisis? By quitting the World Health Organization, the Trump administration is risking American lives in these ways:
- Cuts US input out of global efforts to develop a seasonal influenza vaccine. This is coordinated by the WHO;
- Blocks access (or preferential treatment) to an eventual COVID-19 vaccine if it is developed overseas;
- Blinds the US to health threats in remote international locales that might find their way to American shores;
- Deprives the US of information on major health initiatives on fighting infectious diseases, like the WHO program that is “on the cusp” of eradicating polio.
This is where misguided petulance will get you. God help us all.
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to the investigative website Pro Publica for providing much of the material for this article. Pro Publica is an awesome resource. Its free weekly newsletter is available to all.