The SARS-CoV-2 virus has run up a worldwide death toll of over 320,000, but it has some distance to go before it matches the incredible count of smallpox. In the 20th century alone, smallpox is estimated to have killed 300 million people. In the last hundred years of its existence, smallpox killed half a billion people, until it was eliminated in October 1977 … by a massive global effort organized and operated by the World Health Organization.
Removing from the Earth a scourge that had literally plagued humankind going back into prehistory might be the single greatest accomplishment of WHO. It might also be the single greatest accomplishment of any organization. But it’s not all that WHO has achieved since it was founded in 1948. WHO has also been instrumental in bringing polio to near eradication, in the fight against HIV/AIDS, in developing a vaccine for Ebola, and in the ongoing fight against both tuberculosis and malaria. And even that is only a fraction of the good that WHO does for global health. So naturally, Donald Trump is threatening to destroy this vital instrument of global health as he searches for a scapegoat for his own failures by withdrawing U.S. support “permanently.”
The three countries where COVID-19 cases are growing the fastest are the United States, Brazil, and Russia. In other words—Trump, Bolsonaro, and Putin. The Axis of Ego.
But Donald Trump’s failure remains absolutely singular. The United States, with 4% of the world’s population, has 30% of the world’s known cases of COVID-19, along with 30% of the deaths. Trump continues to give himself top marks by comparing the number of American deaths to the horrific totals that might have been wrung up had government at all levels done absolutely nothing. But compared to the actions taken by almost any leader anywhere, Trump has generated an unmatched failure—one that is all too visible.
A critical part of that response is now looking for someone else to blame. Almost from the beginning of the outbreak, Trump and members of his White House staff began referring to the 2019 novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” and kept that up even after it had been repeatedly pointed out that the term was helping to generate racist attacks on Asian Americans. Trump has repeated, or retweeted, claims that the virus originated from a Chinese lab, even though this statement ran completely counter to the findings of scientists, including scientists within the U.S. government.
But Trump apparently believes that China is an inadequate fall guy for his disastrous failure, so for several weeks he has also been extending his blame to the WHO, describing a conspiracy theory in which that organization somehow failed to warn the world of the coming pandemic. Trump has already suspended payments to the organization for 60 days, and in a Monday night tweet Trump accused the World Health Organization and its leadership of covering up information about the coronavirus “probably for political reasons.”
And if it wasn’t clear that Trump was trying to shift 110% of the blame he deserves for golfing and rallying weeks after the WHO had begun holding daily updates about COVID-19, Trump spelled it out. “It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world,” wrote Trump. Trump cited the WHO with such crimes as … reporting the information given to them by the Chinese government. Trump even blames the WHO for actions taken by the Chinese government, such as failing to respond to a letter written to Chinese authorities by a group of African ambassadors.
And, most of all, Trump blasts the WHO for “praising China’s transparency,” saying that the information provided by China was false and that China ordered samples of the virus destroyed in early January “depriving the world of critical information.” In fact, China provided both samples and the entire generic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 on January 11. Cases outside of China were sequenced later in the month, and confirmed the accuracy of the original sequence.
But of course, Trump’s claims that the WHO was gushing over China are just another example of his endless penchant for projection.
Now Trump is demanding that the WHO “actually demonstrate independence from China,” by agreeing to make changes in the organization. Otherwise, he will withdraw the United States from the WHO and halt funding “permanently.”
The exact nature of those changes isn’t specified, but considering that the requirement is to show that the WHO was covering up for China, and that the WHO demand an investigation into “the origins of the virus” the bargain that Trump is offering seems clear enough: Join in supporting his scheme to divert the blame for his own inaction, or die.
The WHO gets only a fraction of its funding from the dues of UN members. Most of the money comes through voluntary contributions with the United States providing the largest amount. The functions of the WHO are critical to the world response, not just in the COVID-19 pandemic, but in many ongoing health issues. The U.S. cutting off funding has already had a negative impact on programs that protect the lives of billions.
However, the second largest source of funds is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Should the U.S. actually continue to withhold funds, others may come forward to fill the void. In any case, Donald Trump has nothing to say about what the United States will do “permanently.”