On Tuesday, as cases of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. sailed past 600,000 with 2,200 new deaths, President Donald Trump strode into the White House Rose Garden and announced he was cutting funding for the World Health Organization, suggesting the international health body was complicit in a cover-up of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Today I’m instructing my administration to halt funding of the WHO while a review is conducted to assess the WHO’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” Trump said, accusing the international organization of jeopardizing public health in order to appease Beijing.
Trump levied the same criticism at the WHO in a tweet last week. When asked for a response the next day, WHO head Tedros Adhanom denied Trump’s assertion that WHO plays favorites. “We see everybody equally. We want to see everybody equally. That’s what we want. That’s what we do because we belong to all member states equally.”
Nevertheless, Trump sees the funding freeze as a way to punish the WHO for its alleged “China centric” posturing, but doing so could actually give Beijing greater influence within the global health body since China is the WHO’s second-largest state benefactor.
According to the WHO, the U.S. this year contributed 22% of the organization’s membership dues, which are used to cover daily operations, making the U.S. the WHO’s single largest benefactor. In second place, accounting for 12% of the total, was China.
“As the organization’s leading sponsor, the U.S. has a duty to insist of full accountability,” Trump said, chiding the organization for its recommendation against travel restrictions on China throughout February; the WHO’s endorsement of such bans, the President said, could have saved “countless lives.” However, it’s unclear whether Trump will be able to simply put U.S. WHO funds on hold on his own.
According to Evan Hollander, a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, the President “does not have the unilateral authority” to withhold funding for the WHO. Funding for the organization is approved by Congress, where Republicans control the Senate but not the House.
However, Trump might readily garner support for his plan. Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) told Fox News he would leverage his position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations to limit U.S. funding for the WHO, calling the organization deceptive “Chinese apologists.”
If the U.S. were to fully cut funding to the WHO, China would automatically become the organization’s primary member state sponsor.
“We now have a situation in which the U.S. is vacating a leadership role in the middle of the crisis,” Adam Kamradt-Scott, an associate professor of international security at the University of Sydney, told Bloomberg. “Nature abhors a vacuum. Politics abhors a vacuum even more.”
Speaking to journalists during a regular briefing Wednesday, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned that Trump’s action would “undermine international cooperation” and said that “China will as always support the WHO in playing an important role in international public health and global anti-epidemic response.”
WHO member states can make voluntary contributions to support specific crises. The President’s proposed budget for fiscal 2021 recommended cutting voluntary contributions to the WHO from $122 million to $58 million. By comparison, Trump also claims China only spent “roughly $40 million” on the WHO last year.
It’s not immediately clear what data Trump cited for China’s contributions. The WHO’s latest biennium budget report shows China’s mandatory and voluntary contributions as roughly $50 million in 2018. The U.S. is far out ahead, spending roughly $400 million.
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