United States, World Leader in COVID-19 Deaths, to Leave WHO

Leaving instead of leadership. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

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The Trump administration has officially notified the United Nations that the U.S. will withdraw from the World Health Organization, formally beginning a one-year process to sever America’s ties with the international public-health agency and thus cut off one of its largest sources of funding. The move follows months of attacks on the organization by President Trump, who has criticized the WHO over its handling of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. No country has been hit harder by the coronavirus than the U.S., which currently leads the world — by a considerable margin — in both COVID-19 infections and deaths, and Trump’s attacks on the WHO have been widely seen as an attempt to shift the blame for his and his administration’s own mishandling of the pandemic.

It is also not clear if the Trump administration can pull the U.S. from the WHO without congressional authorization, which he seems very unlikely to be able to secure. Should Trump fail to win a second term this fall, a prospective Biden administration would also undoubtedly reverse his decision.

More than 131,000 Americans have lost their lives to the coronavirus, which has infected more than 3 million people in the U.S. since the pandemic began. Many more infections and deaths are expected amid an ongoing resurgence of the coronavirus in the U.S. — largely thanks to premature efforts, encouraged by Trump and his allies, to reopen the country after the initial peak of the outbreak earlier this year. Trump, who has repeatedly tried to downplay or outright dismiss both the threat of the virus and his administration’s ineffectiveness at controlling its spread, has claimed that the WHO acted too slowly in its own response and has been too deferential to China — whom Trump and his allies have also sought to blame for the pandemic, sometimes with racist and xenophobic attacks or unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. In April, amid the first peak of the pandemic, the president halted U.S. funding to the WHO. In late May, he announced the U.S. would leave it completely. Last year, the U.S. contributed more than $550 million to the WHO’s roughly $6 billion biennial budget.

Trump is not alone in criticizing the WHO’s handling of the coronavirus, but many public-health experts have pointed out that the neutral international body had limited power in the first place and cannot be held responsible for how individual nations subsequently responded to the pandemic. Now, instead of participating in any efforts to reform the agency or limit China’s influence over it, the Trump administration plans to abandon the WHO altogether in a move that is not about public health, but domestic politics.

Public-health experts in the U.S. and around the globe have condemned Trump’s counterproductive stance on the WHO. As NPR reported Tuesday, numerous critics have also pointed out that the U.S. has far more to lose than gain by surrendering its partnership with — and influence over — the WHO. They argue that backing the U.S. out of the organization will only further jeopardize the health of Americans and everyone else in the world — and not just in regards to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but in the fight against other public-health threats as well, since the WHO plays a major role in research, the sharing of information, and the development of vaccines.

Attempting to scapegoat the WHO and severing America’s ties with the organization is, in other words, yet another failure by the Trump administration in its response to the pandemic, and one that makes this and future pandemics more dangerous, disruptive, and deadly.

United States, World Leader in COVID-19 Deaths, to Leave WHO