US President Trump’s harangue against WHO and his decision to stop meeting the financial commitment to WHO at a time when the world’s health body needs all the support to fight the COVID19 pandemic is a crime against humanity. Yet, the world need not worry; WHO will be a better place if the US eventually quits it. The US has always been looking for opportunities to throttle all the democratic arms of the UN system- except the veto enabled Security Council- that are run on democratic mandates provided by the member states on a one-country-one-vote basis.
As the US emerged as the world’s newest hotspot for COVID-19 and the failure of the Trump administration as well as the country’s profit-driven healthcare system became glaringly obvious, Trump started looking for scapegoats for his unforgivable failures. Trump cannot spell out the wrongs with WHO. In fact, on January 24, he tweeted, appreciating “China’s efforts and transparency” when US already had two positive cases. The only discernible point was the omission of WHO to support his January 31 decision, restricting travel from China on account of the virus. This was preposterous.
Trump was alluding to a WHO recommendation on international traffic with respect to COVID-19 addressed to the entire community of nations, issued on 27 February. In this temporary recommendation WHO mentioned, “In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.” It further stated,“Travel measures that significantly interfere with international traffic may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak, as they may allow countries to gain time, even if only a few days, to rapidly implement effective preparedness measures”.
This advisory was not US-specific, but to the whole community of nations, and issued about a month after the US decision to restrict travels from China. And the US is a country that routinely disregards the decisions of the UN agencies, including the UN General Assembly. Why was it then worried about a global advisory of a UN body? Trump was trying to find scapegoats in an outlandish manner, knowing well that UN bureaucrats cannot pay back in kind using the same language.
Trump then made a sweeping allegation that WHO is China-centric, again without any justification. WHO’s policy decisions are made by its World Health Assembly comprising 194 member countries and two countries as associate members. The conduct of the WHA is based on a set of democratic rules of procedure and on issues of North-South divide it is often the case that the decisions emerge are fair due to the majority of the developing countries. This is always a point of concern for the US, as with most other democratic UN fora.
However, if indeed the WHO secretariat, ie the bureaucracy, is biased towards any country, it is the US. Most of the procurement of supplies of medicines, equipment and supplies procured by or through WHO is from the US. This has been widely criticised and ought to change. Public health policy experts hold the concern that the US multinational pharmaceutical companies lobby with the WHO bureaucracy to sell their products and to influence health policy decisions in favour of their commercial interests. It is actually a welcome move that Trump has started this debate on bias.
Trump has callously handled the emerging pandemic in his country. On February 9 when the US had 15 cases of COVID-19, he belittled the emerging threat saying, "Rhe flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year". As days passed by and Trump woke up to the threat, he said the country had the possibility of witnessing 100,000 deaths or more. As of writing, the US had 1,064,572 cases of infections and 61,669 deaths. And there seems to be no let up in the trend and Trump needs to find scapegoats.
Trump’s personal diatribe against the WHO director general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus is appalling but not surprising given the former's racist proclivity. He was joined by the global outcaste Taiwan, with racist slurs. Tedros has also disclosed death threats received by him. Tedros, an eminent public health expert, who has made remarkable contribution to addressing infectious diseases both in his native Ethiopia and globally, was elected by the World Health Assembly in 2017, in an election that was termed ‘more transparent than ever before’ by the British medical journal Lancet.
The election, held in several rounds, only a few western countries supported the other final candidate David Nabarro of UK. WHO has been playing an invaluable role in managing the COVID-19 crisis globally through increasing understanding of the disease, coordinating with multiple countries, setting protocols, promoting cooperative research, securing supplies to needy countries even beyond its resource limitation and collating and analysing global disease data and issuing common advisories. The world would have been much worse without WHO in a critical time like this.
Whereas what Trump did in the ‘global spirit’ was outright piracy. A shipment of 400,000 protective equipment from China meant for Tamil Nadu was forcefully diverted to the US and this followed such forceful diversions to the US of shipments scheduled for Germany, France and Canada. The leaders of these countries protested the devious method of the US while the Indian government kept strange but understandable silence. As if the damage caused by Trump in having his fan Modi organise a gathering of 100,000 people in Ahmedabad to please him on 24 February, a week after the WHO advisory against public gatherings wasn't enough, now Gujarat, as the second most affected state, has already lost 197 lives and accounts for 4082 confirmed cases.
The financial chocking
US decision refusing to pay the mandatory annual dues to WHO reflects the US’ disregard for the multilateral democratic organisations. UN organisations are run on mandatory annual assessed contributions paid by the member states using on an agreed scale of assessment which is relative to the wealth and population of each country. Accordingly, US has to pay 22 percent of the annual budget of the UN agency, China pays 12 percent, Japan 8 percent, India 0.83 while the European Union pays 30 percent and so on.
The US is a regular defaulter in WHO as they are to the UN secretariat. Of the total budget of $489 million of WHO for the year 2020, the assessed contribution of US is $ 115 million, China $ 57 million, India $ 4 million. For the year 2019, the US paid only one third of its assessed contribution for the year, both the dollar part and the swiss franc part. When a member country fails to pay dues equivalent to the full contributions for the preceding two years that country loses the voting right in the organisation as the Article 19 of the UN Charter stipulates. The voluntary assessed contributions are not covered by this provision though.
The US efforts to financially hurt the UN system is not new. They have been consistently refusing to pay the dues to the UN secretariat on flimsy grounds. The US payment of dues to the UN is default by $381 million for the year 2018, and for 2019 it is even greater, while most of the low income countries have been duly paying the statutory contribution. It is not only WHO that the US is targeting, they are currently not a member of Unesco. Trump took US out of Unesco in December 2018 following the Unesco General Conference decision by overwhelming majority to admit the State of Palestine as a member. And this was not the first time the US quitting Unesco. They quit Unesco in 1984, against another eminent African, Dr Mahtar M’Bbow of Senegal who has been heading the organisation then, and returned in 2003 when they realised that the US boycott could not cause any dent to the organisation.
The US boycott of Unesco hurt the US in multiple ways while Unesco had one of its most creative period, without the intimidating voice of the US in the meeting halls of Unesco. If the US would leave WHO following its refusal to pay the membership dues, WHO too would be a better place. While US’ assessed contribution is 22 per cent, over 35 percent of the WHO expenditure ends up in the US. About 18 per cent of the WHO staff is from the US, close to 32 percent of the WHO procurements of medicines, equipment, services are from the US, meaning that the US takes back much more than it gives to WHO.
And without the US the proceedings of the decision making bodies of WHO will be a smooth and creative affair as they always attempt to bring down the strength of almost every decision to the weakest in terms of public interest, exploiting the concern for consensus in decision making. In any case the US is outside many of the global democratic multilateral initiatives- the Convention on Biological Diversity and its protocols, Kyoto Protocol, Paris Agreement, International Criminal Court, Basel Convention, etc. The US attack on WHO is in keeping with its political convention but the world needs to take serious note of.
(The writer is an ecologist, specialising in international policy affairs).