Opinion: The WHO Messed Up, But So Did Trump

Date: 2020-04-20 12:38:25

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Blaming the World Health Organization for being late and cozy with China doesn’t exonerate the White House’s own failings, Bloomberg Opinion’s Therese Raphael writes below:

The problem with Donald Trump’s threat to defund the World Health Organization Tuesday wasn’t his accusation that the Geneva-based body “missed the call” on Covid-19. Nor was it his concerns, expressed by many others too, about the organization’s coziness with China. It was that Trump’s blame game only compounds his own major errors in responding to the virus threat.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Trump laid into the WHO, announcing he was defunding the organization — before backpedaling and leaving everyone confused. “They called it wrong. They, really, they missed the call. They could have called it months earlier,” he said, adding that “we’re going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO, we’re going to put a very powerful hold on it.”

A reporter asked him whether smack in the middle of a pandemic was the right time to freeze WHO funding. Trump shot back, “I’m not saying I’m going to do it.” (He literally said just that.) Instead, he said he would be investigating the matter and that the organization seemed biased toward China.

The WHO ticks all the boxes of a perfect scapegoat. Big multilateral bureaucracy based in Switzerland? Check. Friendly to China? Double check. Receives large U.S. donations? Yep. Even if Trump missed all of those signs, which he never would, Republican Senators have been vigorously pointing them out.

The other helpful thing about focusing on an acronym is that it deflects attention from Trump’s own missed calls in this crisis. From his initial dismissal of the virus as a hoax or a non-event, to his constant touting of an unproven medicine, to his claims that mass testing was taking place when it wasn’t, Trump’s leadership bears unflattering comparison with Beijing’s on a number of levels.

On Monday it emerged that Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro, a China-hawk, warned repeatedly of a pandemic that would wreak havoc in the U.S. and called for a tougher response. (Trump claims he didn’t get the memo.) And that warning wasn’t the only one. ABC News reported Wednesday that U.S. intelligence officials, citing communications intercepts and satellite images, were raising alarms about an out-of-control virus in Wuhan as early as November. Maybe Trump just doesn’t read the memos.

But just because it’s a smokescreen doesn’t mean Trump’s criticism of the WHO lacks merit. One of the organization’s core missions is to prepare for global health emergencies, but despite its succession of pandemic response plans over the years, it was slow to inform the world about the seriousness of the new coronavirus. Taiwan — which is blocked from WHO membership by China – says it alerted the WHO about human-to-human transmission in late December but was ignored.

When the organization finally declared a public health emergency, on Jan. 30, precious time had been lost. While leading scientists were calling Covid-19 a pandemic much earlier — as it ripped through one country after another with rising infection rates — the WHO didn’t fire that starting gun until March 11.

As late as February, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was still insisting it would be a bad idea to ban flights from or interrupt travel to China, as it would divert resources from fighting the disease. Trump announced restrictions on flights from China less than two weeks after the news had spread, though by then the virus already had time to seed in various states. (Those and later restrictions also fell far short of an outright ban.) In mid-March, as China was showing signs of stabilizing its own outbreak, it flouted the WHO’s earlier guidance and started blocking flights from Italy, Iran and other infected countries.

The WHO’s constant praise for China’s response has left many exasperated. To see how awkward this has gotten, just watch WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward ignore a journalist’s question about Taiwan’s impressive record in responding to the virus. It was frustration with such politicization that caused Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso to quip that the WHO should change its name to the Chinese Health Organization.

Read the full article: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-04-08/coronavirus-the-who-messed-up-but-so-did-trump?sref=Ycj954CZ

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