Is withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO) the best option for the U.S. and the Global Health Community?
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is currently ravaging lives and crucial resources worldwide, and China blamed in part for this.
Individuals, organizations, and states pressuring Beijing to take responsibility for the pandemic’s damage. The U.S. has made similar allegations, with President Trump repeatedly referring to it, the virus as “the Chinese virus.”
At the same time, Mike Pompeo insisted that the virus be characterized as “Wuhan Virus” at the G-7 meeting. Besides, there are pending class-action lawsuits filed in different states in the U.S. alleging that China used the coronavirus as a bioweapon.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) must accept blame and be accused of shielding China; it lost considerable goodwill and trust in its operations.
In late May, President Trump announced that the U.S. would be terminating its relationship with WHO and directing those funds to other global public health charities.
The notice of withdrawal, effective July 6, 2021, was sent to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday, July 6, 2020.
This drastic move was received with mixed feelings in the U.S., earning applause and criticism in almost equal measure. Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted that Congress had received notification of the withdrawal, which he said: “leaves Americans sick & America alone.” On the opposite, Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, called the withdrawal “the right decision.”
However, polling by the Economist/YouGov shows a significant number of Americans’ disapproval of the U.S. withdrawing from the World Health Organization. Some argue President Trump intends to shift the blame for his inadequate response to the WHO’s pandemic.
Other members of the global health community immediately reference in their objection of the U.S. withdrawal.
American involvement in the WHO
The World Health Organization has about 196-member states, and the U.S. is one of the major sponsors of the Geneva-based Organizations. It contributed more than $400 million in 2019, roughly 15% of the WHO’s annual budget.
The withdrawal of the U.S. will mean a reduction in funds and resources and personnel available to the WHO for deployment to combat public health issues in developing countries. The U.S. has been in partnership with the WHO towards maintaining global health for decades.
Interestingly, about 83 different WHO collaboration centers—research institutes, universities, and U.S. government agencies that work at the intersection of U.S. and global public health reside in the United States.
In collaboration with the WHO, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) facilitates regional training events on foundational principles and concepts in public health emergency management.
The CDC is also a key partner to the Global Outbreak and Response Network. (GOARN) which enables WHO to respond to acute public health events through the deployment of staff and resources.
For example, the U.S. worked with WHO and the broader multilateral response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. Similarly, the U.S. scientists were also among the delegates sent to China to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020.
The CDC is also a significant investor and partner in innovative global disease surveillance to identify foreign outbreaks.
In response to an earlier threat of withdrawal by President Trump, the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, acknowledged the organization’s dependence on the U.S. contribution.
He also stressed the significant difference in public health that the U.S. generosity has made worldwide as he said, “It is WHO’s wish for this collaboration to continue.”
Implications for global health
The U.S. withdrawal from the WHO has left a bill no other country is likely to pay. As it is now, the organization has lost its previous capacity to detect and control future outbreaks. The outlook is not optimistic.
The politics of the move is bound to impact future cooperation.
President Trump’s announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the WHO only shocked diplomats and officials for as long as it took to pick up records of his tendency to project a strongman image.
Coincidentally, some have attributed the drastic move as one to take the scrutiny at home away from him. “We must defend the WHO but not play to Trump’s tactic to distract from the high cases and deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. or the murder of George Floyd”, said Sophie Harman. She is a professor of international politics at the University of London.
She argues that “the two issues – responding to Covid-19 and racial injustice – are not and cannot be seen in isolation of one another; you just need to look at who is dying from the virus to see this…”
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has also seized on the moment to say that, if elected, he would immediately rejoin the organization and “restore our leadership on the world stage.”
Setting a precedent of politicization
Several policy players, like Sanhita Ambast, Amnesty International’s Advisor on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, have faulted the U.S. for pushing a pattern of withdrawing from international bodies and treaties. A trend she describes as insensitive and a risk to the rights and lives people all over the world.
“President Trump has accused WHO of mishandling the pandemic. The USA should engage with the organization on its concerns, instead of backing out at this key moment. We urge the Trump administration to reconsider and show that the USA is still committed to upholding international public health.” She further stressed.
Before the withdrawal, WHO DG Ghebreyesus had pleaded with governments to stop politicizing the pandemic. Stressing that the global health community will suffer a significant blow if the U.S. indeed withdraws from the organization.
In his words, “The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly revealed how we need more international cooperation to address global health crises, not less. Without U.S. participation, this progress will undoubtedly be slowed and vital programs decimated”.
Setting back efforts to keep the world, and Americans healthy
Considering the WHO’s programs on neglected tropical diseases, the U.S. Agency for International Development funds is at $6 million annually. The move does not justify these millions of American taxpayer dollars given as investments in public health, not charity.
The withdrawal puts Americans too, at stake. It will limit the government’s access to information. For instance, twice a year, the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) provides the WHO member states with vital information on the dominant influenza strains circulating the world. In this scenario, the U.S. will lose its access to such crucial information.
Withdrawing is not the best option for the U.S. We’re in a period when the international community needs to maintain a united front against the pandemic.
The International Health Regulations (IHRs), an internationally binding blueprint put in place by the WHO to tackle Public Health Emergencies, can help achieve the desired result if adequately implemented by states.