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US’ Whipping Boy

The US president’s gripe about the WHO and China has a lot to do with the November presidential elections and his own administration's mishandling of the pandemic. By Seema Guha

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At a time when the WHO should be concentrating all its energies on fighting the spread of Covid-19, it has unfortunately become a punching bag for the US and China, the two leading world powers, which have indulged in shadow boxing.

Granted the WHO is not perfect and made some mistakes at the beginning of the pandemic. Yet, at a time when the world is facing its worst health crisis, it is time for everyone to back it instead of trading accusations. This is something that US President Donald Trump, fighting his second presidential term, is unwilling to concede. He has been severely criticised, more so in his own country for this lack of grace.

What is more, Trump has ann­ounced that the US will stop funding the WHO. This is both immature and foolish. The omissions and commissions of the WHO can be called to account at a later date. Not now in the middle of a pandemic. But the battle is on: Trump wants to shift the blame for the pandemic on China and the WHO, while Chinese President Xi Jinping wants the world to forget the mismanagement in Wuhan and focus on China’s image as the saviour, ferrying planeloads of medical equipment to the US, Europe and Asia.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was charged with going “soft” on China and taking it at its word. Trump, who insisted on using the term China virus to refer to Covid-19, also charged WHO with covering up for China.“ Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China’s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death,” Trump fumed.

Ghebreyesus hit back: “If you don’t want more bodybags, refrain from pol­it­i­­cising the virus. Time to unite not to point fingers.’’ Trump was not to be det­erred and went ahead and anno­unc­ed the US would no longer fund the WHO.

The organisation will be seriously affected by Trump’s decision. Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates hit out at Trump for his peremptory announcement. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the second highest contributor to WHO, contributing as much as 10 percent of its budget. “Halt­i­ng funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds,” Gates tweeted soon after Trump’s decision. “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.” Gates also announced that he would be giving an additional $100 million to the WHO to fight Covid-19.

According to The Washington Post, the US is committed to give the WHO $893 m for its current two-year funding cycle. It said that the halt in US funding would continue for 60 to 90 days “while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus”.

Trump complained in his usual style: “We have not been treated properly.” He accused the WHO of pushing China’s misinformation about the virus. UN Secretary General António Guterres without naming Trump said that it was “not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organisation or any other humanitarian organisation in the fight against the virus…Now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences”.

The American Medical Association (AMA) called Trump’s announcement to cut WHO funding “a dangerous step in the wrong direction”. “Cutting funding to the WHO—rather than focusing on solutions—is a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world,” it said in a statement. “The AMA is deeply concerned by this decision and its wide-ranging ramifications, and we strongly urge the President to reconsider.”

Despite Trump’s strident criticism of the WHO, the fact is that it does not have any independent sources of information. It has to rely on what is provided by the host country, in this case, China. If it wanted to send a team to Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus in China, it would have had to get permission from the authorities in Beijing. With Wuhan under lockdown, it would not have been possible for a team of experts from the WHO to land there. Like every other organisation of the UN, the WHO cannot act independently and needs the co-operation of the host nation. Imagi­ne the government of India allowing a team from the UN Human Rights Council to visit Kashmir immediately after the scrapping of Article 370! New Delhi would have sent them packing. The UN system has to respect the sovereign right of a nation to take a call on whether to allow a team access or not.

Ghebreyesus’ fault was his inability to grasp the magnitude of the health crisis in Wuhan. If the WHO warning had come earlier, perhaps the world would have been better prepared to face the crisis. The virus made its first appearance in Wuhan in December 2019. The first warning was issued, not by Chinese authorities, but by 34-year-old ophthalmologist Li Wenliang who worked in a Wuhan general hospital. He warned a group of medics through Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) of a few cases of a brand new viral in his hospital. He said it seemed somewhat similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which was reported from China in 2002. Those were early days when the Covid-19 virus was not identified. Li soon had the police knocking at his door to warn him against spreading panic. He was made to sign a note denying what he had put out. This was the extent the Chinese authorities went to hide the real picture. Sometime later, Li himself contracted the virus. But even while gasping for breath, he spoke to journalists and gave out the true picture. His death created a storm among people in China as they grasped the magnitude of the problem. The government came in for angry criticism for hiding the truth and its mishandling of the crisis.

But by mid-March, China got its act together. Once the disease was under control there, the country stepped up efforts to rebuild its tarnished image. Xi himself came on the phone line to speak to a number of world leaders, including Trump, to talk of co-operation in the fight against Covid-19. Soon after his conversation with Xi, Trump praised China. But he went back to square one afterwards.

Much of Trump’s anti-China and anti-WHO rhetoric has to do with the November presidential elections. He is bent on blaming everyone but his administration for the failure to take adequate measures to fight the pandemic. The first case of Covid-19 in Washington State was reported on January 20. South Korea too reported its first case that day. Yet, the response of both countries was as different as chalk and cheese. Trump had also been warned by his intelligence agencies about the pandemic. However, he saw this as another conspiracy by the Democrats and the liberal press against him. So instead of preparing for the pandemic, Trump ignored it. But he could not do so for long when the US became the eye of the storm.

Pointing a finger at the WHO is a convenient way to shift the blame from his administration. And anti-UN and anti-China rhetoric plays to his support base. During his last presidential campaign, he made China the villain for stealing jobs from the US. And Trump will continue to do so till the elections are done and dusted.

Right-wing groups and many Rep­ublican governors are of the same view as Trump. Many conservative groups are holding rallies against the lockdown ordered in many states across the country. Trump is encouraging these defiant groups to ensure that people return to work and the economy bounces back. One of his big achievements has been the economy, and he wants to make sure that this advantage remains, forgetting the deaths and the pain in the wake of the pandemic. Nothing could perhaps be more foolish.

The money bags

These are the 10 biggest contributing countries to the WHO

*US: $893 m for a two-year funding cycle

*Germany: $292 m annually

*Japan: $214.3 m

* Canada: $100 m

* Norway: $86.4 m

*China: $86 m

* Sweden: $77 m

*France: $76.2 m

* South Korea: $69.7 m

* Kuwait: $69.7 m

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