Someone to blame

Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most catastrophic failures in American history. Throughout February and into March, Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat. Worse, Trump did not mobilize the government to increase testing capacity, stockpile protective equipment, or produce ventilators. Instead, he claimed the coronavirus would magically disappear by April.

As of Wednesday, there are 637,196 confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the United States, which have resulted in 27,866 deaths. By the time you click those links, both numbers will be higher. 

Trump did not issue social distancing guidelines until March 16. A new model, published in the New York Times, found that had Trump acted just two weeks earlier, 90% of coronavirus deaths could have been avoided. 

With coronavirus still spreading rapidly in many areas of the country and millions out of work, Trump faces reelection in just 201 days. And he’s looking for someone else to blame. 

Trump has decided to pin responsibility on the World Health Organization (WHO). “The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable. So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” Trump said on Tuesday.  He said the federal government would immediately stop funding the organization. 

Has the WHO made mistakes in responding to the coronavirus? Yes. But cutting funding to the organization during a pandemic could make the situation much worse, both in the United States and throughout the world. 

The WHO’s response

Trump’s primary complaint with the WHO is that the organization was not “skeptical enough of [China’s] statements about the virus.” There is some truth to that. On January 14, the WHO tweeted about “preliminary investigations” conducted by Chinese authorities, which found “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” for the coronavirus. That study clearly was wrong, and the WHO’s decision to promote it over Twitter was a mistake.

But in a press briefing conducted the same day, the WHO said “human-to-human transmission was still a strong possibility given the experience of past coronavirus epidemics and urged suitable precautions.” On January 23, “the WHO updated its account of the coronavirus threat, confirming human-to-human transmission and warning that the global risk was high.” 

On January 30, the WHO declared the coronavirus to be a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” It advised all countries to “be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread.”

Trump effectively ignored that advice for weeks, which has resulted in thousands of preventable deaths. 

On January 31, Trump limited flights to the United States from China. This decision may have, for a brief time, slowed the spread of the coronavirus within the United States. In late-February, the WHO advised that “restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.” Trump now claims that the WHO “fought” his decision. The WHO’s guidance in February was a mistake, but the WHO did not make any effort to fight or interfere with Trump’s actions. 

Moreover, whatever time limiting flights from China afforded the United States, Trump squandered it. 

Trump repeatedly praised China and the WHO

The core of Trump’s argument is that the WHO was too soft on China. But, during the same time period, Trump effusively praised China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!,” Trump tweeted on January 24. 

On February 10, in an interview on Fox News, Trump again praised China’s response. He described the work of the WHO as “fantastic.” 

China is very professionally run in the sense that they have everything under control....we just sent some of our best people over there, World Health Organization and a lot of them are composed of our people. They're fantastic.

On February 24, Trump said that the coronavirus was “very much under control in the United States” and praised China and the WHO again. 

The impact of cutting off funding

Intuitively, cutting funding for the world’s international health organization during a pandemic makes no sense. Bill Gates, whose foundation has worked extensively on fighting infectious disease, said that Trump’s decision is “as dangerous as it sounds.”

Specifically, the WHO is playing an essential role in containing the spread of the virus, particularly in poorer countries with little public health infrastructure. Undercutting the WHO’s ability to do this work may result in more international hot spots, which would result in more preventable deaths and increase the chances of a second surge in the United States.

The United States is the biggest source of funding for the WHO, contributing $900 million over the last two years.

“WHO is in the middle of supporting global surveillance efforts and scale-up of testing and response in low- and middle-income countries around the world. Hobbling that response is not just unjust, it’s incredibly bad for U.S. public health at a moment when we have all learned painfully how easily this virus moves from abroad to U.S. shores,” Matthew Kavanagh, a global health researcher at Georgetown University, said. 

Is Trump breaking the law?

Congress appropriates funding for the WHO. Can Trump unilaterally withhold it? 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says no. At a press conference on Wednesday, Pelosi called Trump’s move “dangerous” and “illegal.” 

Pelosi’s position has some support from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO reviewed Trump’s decision to withhold military assistance to Ukraine as part of a scheme to pressure the country to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. The GAO “concluded that Trump broke the law” because a president can’t “substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.” 

“In a desperate attempt to deflect blame, President Trump is violating the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment,” Evan Hollander, a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday.

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