The World Health Organization (WHO) has now become the latest victim of President Donald Trump’s typical tactic of pointing his finger at others. Trump has himself to blame for his administration’s bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he has slammed the WHO for being “very China-centric” and is now halting funding to the organization pending a review. Since his attacks, opinions have split in terms of whether the WHO is really at fault. Those dissatisfied with the Trump administration’s handling of the outbreak seem eager to defend the organization. Yet one does not have to agree with Trump to condemn the WHO. The world community would benefit from insisting on better performance from the world’s health body, rather than normalizing its failings.
The WHO and its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have been rightly criticized for actions that helped China downplay the COVID-19 crisis at its most crucial stage: the start. The WHO has recently sought to counter those criticisms, claiming that its experts had already suspected human-to-human transmission in early January and had urged member states to take precautions on January 10-11. Yet, what the WHO and its supporters try to gloss over is that, despite the organization’s awareness of the potential threat of a large-scale outbreak, it misleadingly echoed China’s misinformation without the adequate assessment expected of a professional body protecting the world’s health interests. Instead, it only belatedly mobilized the international response required.
From December 31, 2019, when China first reported cases of pneumonia in Wuhan to the WHO, to January 20, the Chinese government repeatedly insisted there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. There were actually many signs that indicated otherwise. Doctors in Wuhan tried to warn about the spread of the virus as early as late December. By January 11, several health care workers in Wuhan were infected. On January 13, when the first overseas case, a Chinese patient traveling from Wuhan to Thailand, was confirmed, it was known that the patient had not visited Wuhan’s seafood market, which was thought to be the source of the outbreak. According to the Associated Press, on January 14, China’s National Health Commission, jolted by the Thailand case, held a confidential teleconference out of concern that the virus might spread during the vast Chinese New Year travel. But the Chinese government waited six days before publicly acknowledging that the virus can be transmitted by humans.
The WHO, which was aware of the possibility of human-to-human transmission and had also received information about the first Thai case, not only did not push back on China’s misinformation, but rather continued to amplify China’s position. In addition to its periodic briefings, on January 14, the WHO again endorsed China’s claim that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. The organization dragged its feet until January 21, one day after China’s belated acknowledgment, when it finally confirmed that the virus can be transmitted by humans. On January 23, Tedros nevertheless announced that the outbreak was not a global health emergency, even though confirmed cases had been reported in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam. The WHO only declared COVID-19 “a public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, by which time the virus had already reached 20 jurisdictions outside China. Yet, on February 4, Tedros continued to advise against travel restrictions on China on the ground that they would unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade and increase fear and stigma.
People offering a more charitable explanation of the WHO’s misguided practice emphasize that the international body requires government cooperation and that scientists need time to figure out a new virus. This defense, however, is disingenuous in light of the WHO leadership’s behavior, which is neither principled nor neutral when it comes to dealing with China. Tedros has repeatedly praised China’s “transparency” and speedy action in coping with the outbreak, while remarkably saying nothing about Beijing’s suppression of information or its punishment of whistleblowers who tried to warn about the virus. The WHO has been also criticized for also putting politics before public health by excluding the efforts of Taiwan, a country that offers a rare admirable example of how to contain the outbreak. WHO officials until recently treated any topic relating to Taiwan as taboo. Yet last week, Tedros, confronted with overwhelming opprobrium for ignoring Taiwan’s attempts to cooperate, accused the Taiwan government of backing a racist campaign against him without offering any evidence of that claim.
Tedros’ behavior has brought warranted scrutiny to Beijing’s sway over the WHO. Beijing’s influence is not tied to its financial contribution to the organization, which is paltry compared to that of the United States, the WHO’s largest donor. Rather, it is based on Beijing’s political coalition within the organization, which allows China to have significant influence over various decisions, including the selection of its leader. Tedros was elected in 2017 thanks to the backing of the global South together with China, which has long claimed to represent the interests of the developing world. Beijing reportedly worked tirelessly to help Tedros defeat the United Kingdom candidate. This is not a unique case. In other international organizations, Beijing’s influence has expanded similarly. It has, for example, formed a formidable alliance with authoritarian governments and developing countries in the United Nations Human Rights Council in order to contest human rights norms, weaken relevant international institutions, and polarize North-South divisions.
What should be done? Trump’s decision to freeze the WHO’s funding has been universally denounced by health experts and governments, for it can impede delivery of medical supplies to the most vulnerable countries at this crucial time. This will even have an adverse impact on the United States in a connected world where viruses leaps borders. Trump has made an astonishingly immoral, inhumane, and self-harming decision.
Trump’s decision is also strategically foolish for his government at a time when U.S. leadership continues to decline and China’s power is perceived to increase. The Trump administration has retreated from various international institutions, including the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, UNESCO, and the Human Rights Council. It is also blocking the WTO dispute resolution process. In the WHO, Trump has failed to fill the vacant U.S. seat on the organization’s executive board since 2018. For the U.S. government now to stop WHO funding is to further deprive itself of the leverage it could have to work from within to influence the WHO’s governance. It also alienates U.S. allies, which have uniformly opposed Trump’s new move, and gives China more room to cultivate influence.
In Washington today, this tendency to relinquish America’s hard-won role in post-war international institutions is increasingly great. Some conservative voices even argue that the United States should seek to create an alternative health organization if WHO reforms are ineffective. But such a view is unrealistic. Global governance cannot be accomplished by an organization that does not embrace universal membership, as U.S. allies repeatedly point out in opposing Trump’s unilateral policies. If the United States seriously cares about world affairs, it should reverse these policies and seek to develop broad-based, cross-regional alliances and support in the existing international system. It should join its allies in using collective political and financial leverage to reform the WHO by demanding that it evaluate situations independently, verify information vigorously, criticize governments when warranted, and treat all stakeholders without prejudice. A WHO lacking in transparency, competence, and integrity can only continue to be deficient.
Yu-Jie Chen, a Taiwan lawyer, is a global academic fellow at Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Law and an affiliated scholar at New York University’s (NYU) US-Asia Law Institute. Jerome A. Cohen, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is professor of law at NYU and founding director of the US-Asia Law Institute.