Greg Gottlieb on Trump’s halting of WHO funding

Wrong Move at the Wrong Time

by Gregory Gottlieb

The recent decision by President Trump to halt funding to the WHO has been strongly and rightly condemned by many world leaders, including the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and Bill Gates, whose foundation is the second largest donor to WHO.  The withdrawal of funds at a crucial time in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic will create impacts far beyond the President’s dispute over WHO performance. It will hurt the hundreds of millions of people who rely on help from WHO, even when the world is not fighting a pandemic. These are the most vulnerable people in the world, who are being made even more vulnerable as COVID-19 adds to the dangers they already face.

WHO provides vital health services around the world. Its critical health services for vulnerable populations include vaccination campaigns, supporting critical health surveillance systems to monitor disease outbreaks such as cholera and measles, and coordinating responses to such  outbreaks. Globally, its recent work on COVID-19 is an example of the role it plays around the globe to help meet pandemics.

An important part of WHO’s remit is to support more than 130 million refugees and internally displaced persons—who have been forced from their homes, have had their support systems broken, and are now reliant on international relief and care—and the countries and regions that host these displaced people. For example, in the massive Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, WHO provides crucial support to a health system that struggles to deal with the needs of more than 800,000 refugees.  If COVID-19 were to strike a densely populated camp like those in Bangladesh or any humanitarian context where health systems are weak and people are already vulnerable, the impact could be catastrophic.

What we do have in such places is an inadequate number of dedicated doctors, nurses, and community health workers who rely on advice and supplies from WHO to do their work. Without funding, their jobs and/or the support and materials they need to do their jobs could disappear at a time when they are most needed by the most vulnerable populations.

Eliminating WHO funding means weakening surveillance and support for health systems in the global south that lack the means to deal with a virus outbreak. Therefore, now is clearly not the time to withdraw funds from WHO, or any other humanitarian organization. Instead, the United States should maintain its generous support for most vulnerable as it grapples with its own crisis. This should not be looked at as a zero-sum crisis.  The Feinstein International Center urges President Trump to reverse his decision on funding WHO.