WHO director calls for unity to fight coronavirus after Trump orders halt to U.S. funding
The head of the World Health Organization on Wednesday defended its mission in fighting the coronavirus after President Trump halted U.S. funding to the global health agency.
“The enjoyment of the highest standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said at a press briefing in Geneva, reciting the 75-year-old organization’s mission statement. “That creed remains our vision today.”
His comments came a day after Trump announced that he planned to withhold funding to the WHO for what he claimed were missteps in handling the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 2 million people worldwide and killed at least 129,000, including more than 26,000 in the United States.
“With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have deep concerns whether America’s generosity has been put to the best use possible,” Trump said at a Rose Garden briefing late Tuesday afternoon. “The reality is that the WHO failed to adequately obtain and share information in a timely and transparent fashion.”
Trump has expressed annoyance that the WHO gets much more money from the U.S. — $893 million over the past two years, roughly 10 per cent of the organization’s budget — than from China, while it was allegedly complicit in China’s early attempts to hide the coronavirus outbreak.
Trump himself, however, initially praised China for its “transparency” about the disease, before more recently blaming the nation for allowing the pandemic to spread.
U.S. funding to the WHO is appropriated by Congress. Presidents can put holds on funds, and Trump suggested that his administration would indeed withhold some portion of the money while investigating the organization. But the president provided few specifics of that investigation, saying only that WHO funding would be withheld — before eventually being released — for up to three months.
“The United States of America has been a longstanding and generous friend to WHO, and we hope it will continue to be so,” Tedros said. “We regret the decision by the president of the United States to order a hold in funding to the World Health Organization.”
Tedros was named WHO director-general in 2017 after serving as Ethiopia’s health minister.
He said the WHO would work with partners to “fill any financial gaps we face, and to ensure our work continues uninterrupted.” And he called for unity in the face of the pandemic.
“COVID-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small,” Tedros continued. “It does not discriminate between nationalities, ethnicities or ideologies. Neither do we.”
“This is a time for all of us to be united,” he added. “When we are divided, the virus exposes the cracks between us.”
Trump’s decision to halt funding to the WHO was widely condemned by lawmakers, global health officials and philanthropists, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has made international health his signature philanthropy.
“Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds,” Gates tweeted. “Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.”
“Withholding funds for WHO in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century makes as much sense as cutting off ammunition to an ally as the enemy closes in,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement. “WHO could have been more forceful with China and declared a global health emergency sooner, but it is performing an essential function and needs our strong support.”
Tedros said the WHO will conduct a thorough review of its response to the pandemic “in due course.”
“No doubt areas of improvement will be identified and there will be lessons for all of us,” the director-general said. “But for now, our focus, my focus, is on saving lives.”