In a move which has been perceived by many as characteristically controversial, US President Donald Trump has announced that he is ending the United States’ relationship with the WHO.
In an increasingly interconnected world, as global trade and travel continue to grow, it is perhaps inevitable that pandemics have become one of the biggest threats to human society. An organisation with global health at the forefront of its interests would surely be our best chance of coordinating worldwide efforts to minimise the impacts of a new or current pandemic. Fortunately, such an organisation exists in the form of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
“We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organisation”, Trump said at a press briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House last Friday (29th May). “[We will be] redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs”. Trump’s allegations against the WHO include failing to hold Beijing to account over the current pandemic, going as far as to label the UN health agency a “puppet of China”. He also said that the WHO had “failed in its basic duty” in its response to COVID-19.
Unsurprisingly, the declaration was met with much concern from global health experts and organisations including the European Union, who said in a statement following the President’s press briefing that “now is the time for enhanced cooperation and common solutions”, and warned that “actions that weaken international results must be avoided”.
President Trump’s opinions about the WHO’s handling of the current coronavirus pandemic have been no secret. Last month, he wrote a letter to Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pledging to freeze US funding to the organisation unless it committed to “major substantive improvements within the next 30 days”. Trump’s announcement that he would be suspending funding indefinitely came just 11 days after the letter was dated.
This is undoubtedly a bold move from the US president, especially amid the current pandemic. Of its 194 member states, the US was the biggest single contributor to the WHO last year, providing over $400m (around 15% of the organisation’s total budget that year).
The United Nations was founded shortly after the chaos of the Second World War in a bid to maintain international peace and security. The WHO was formed soon after with a similar optimism that international collaboration was the way forward, and since then it has seen many successes. Smallpox was still killing millions of people per year in the 1950s despite the existence of a vaccine. The WHO’s role in this instance was more of a diplomatic one, convincing the Soviet Union to manufacture 25 million vaccines in 1959 and by the late 1960s, every UN nation was to send weekly reports to the WHO about their progress and number of smallpox cases. In 1979, the WHO declared that smallpox was eradicated.
Another success for the organisation came with its response to the 2003 SARS pandemic. Although the SARS coronavirus reached 26 countries, and had a higher death rate than COVID-19, less than 1,000 were killed. This pandemic was halted by “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (NPIs) not dissimilar to the ones we are seeing currently, including travel bans, tracking, testing and quarantining cases of the virus. This was the first time that the WHO had issued advice against travel to affected areas – and it worked. Flights dropped dramatically after these recommendations were put forward.
Nevertheless, there have been recent instances in which the WHO’s responses to disease outbreaks have been less successful. The organisation’s coordination of the global response to the 2009 H1N1 (“swine flu”) outbreak was met with scrutiny after the death toll was revealed to be far lower than anticipated, with many politicians and media outlets claiming that the WHO had “cried wolf”, overreacted, and wasted huge amounts of money. When Ebola hit West Africa in 2015, the WHO was hesitant to react as quickly as it did to the previous pandemic. This time, the agency was accused of being too slow to act, and many experts judged the response to be a huge failure.
The notion behind the World Health Organisation is of great importance; although you would be forgiven for thinking it was somewhat optimistic. Its International Health Regulations (IHR) expect that member states prepare for public health threats according to the WHO’s standards, and follow WHO guidelines during emergencies, yet the World Health Organisation lacks any real authority when it comes to the actions of its member states.
The WHO has already agreed to launch an independent investigation into how it managed the response to COVID-19. Time will tell if mistakes were made, and whether there were any major influences from member states that hindered the initial reaction to the current pandemic.
However, until this investigation comes to an end, surely it is in best interests worldwide to continue to support this organisation. This will not be the last pandemic to affect global society, and unless we maintain efforts to coordinate and manage international responses to health emergencies like this one, the worst will be yet to come.
Written by Anna Purdue and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.