Donald Trump announced the White House would implement an immediate hold on U.S. funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday, making good on threats earlier this month to punish the UN health organization in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic. News of the freeze comes as confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. climbed to over 608,000 and the world writ large closed in on two million.
The president claimed that WHO is biased in favor of China, which initially sought to suppress reports of a novel virus spreading in Wuhan province before shifting to heavy-handed tactics like mandatory quarantines and curfews as the scale of the threat became clear. In Trump’s telling of the story, the WHO caved to Chinese government pressure, failing to challenge its false narrative that the situation was under control. The U.S. funded the WHO with $453 million in fiscal year 2019, with a senior administration official telling the Wall Street Journal that the White House is discussing where that funding can be diverted.
Trump said the current level of funding will be withheld while the U.S. completes a report on what he called WHO’s “[severe] mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus,” adding that if its experts had called out the Chinese government for withholding information, the virus “could have been contained at its source with very little death.”
In reality, reports have indicated that Trump resisted early efforts to pressure China on the issue to avoid antagonizing them during trade negotiations. While the WHO’s deference to nations it is reliant on for funding and access is indeed a major flaw in the multilateral health system, that in no way excuses the White House’s catastrophic lack of preparedness when the virus spread stateside. (The idea that the U.S. had no idea that the virus could become a crisis due to the WHO is laughable, with report after report indicating the administration knew it posed a dire risk even as Trump ignored and downplayed it in public.)
Defunding the WHO, which is currently doing everything from distributing hundreds of thousands of test kits to coordinating critical medical research in the middle of the pandemic, is unlikely to do anything but make the situation worse. Similarly, while it is true that if the Chinese government had responded by acknowledging the extent of the problem it may have been able to significantly reduce initial spread, it is not at all clear that it would have prevented other countries from failing to prepare.
“Right now, there is a very coordinated effort amongst the White House and their allies to try to find scapegoats for the fatal mistakes that the President made during the early stages of this virus,” Senator Chris Murphy told CNN. “It is just wildly ironic that the President and his allies are now criticizing China or the WHO for being soft on China when it was in fact the President who was the chief apologist for China during the early stages of this crisis.”
Democrats in the Senate have already said that the White House does not have the power to halt WHO funding on its own, but the president has asserted he has “total” authority to order whatever he wants during the emergency. According to the Journal, the administration is discussing possible methods to bypass Congress by re-routing the money to “other health programs.” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres denounced the freeze, according to the Journal, saying that it is “not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”
Meanwhile, official estimates of the number of deaths in New York City grew by over 3,700 on Tuesday.
The sharp increase was not unanticipated. NYC health officials said last week they would begin tallying the number of people who had died at home without testing positive for the virus, but whose symptoms and medical histories indicated that was the primary cause of death. But according to the New York Times, the revised numbers bring the total number of deaths in the city to over 10,000, and seem to have increased the national death count by 17 percent to over 26,000.
Health Department commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot told the paper that the number of deaths directly linked to covid-19 don’t tell the whole story, as the department identified an additional excess of 3,000 deaths from March 11 to April 13 than what it would expect from prior years. That indicates NYC’s health care system may have been unable to handle its regular patient load at the same time hospitals were filling with coronavirus patients.
“This is yet another part of the impact of Covid,” Barbot told the Times. “...What New Yorkers are interested in, and what the country is interested in, is that we have an accurate and complete count. It’s part of the healing process that we’re going to have to go through.”
According to the Times, health officials in California, Louisiana, and Washington state are still counting only those deaths with positive tests, as is the city of Chicago.