In March of 2018, I strolled down the flag-studded hallway of the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Years of study and volunteering in public health had equipped me for this research consultancy, and I brimmed with excitement at the chance to contribute to an institution I so admired.
I spent 2 months at the WHO, working on mobile health initiatives to combat non-communicable diseases, and learned about the critical work the WHO does in building public health infrastructure, pushing for universal health coverage, and fighting infectious diseases. I learned about its leadership in eliminating the deadly smallpox virus, the near-eradication of polio, and the reduction of tuberculosis and measles through mass vaccination programs.
By the time I boarded my departure flight, I left inspired.
A KICK IN THE GUT
Two years later, in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century, in which the US has experienced more deaths than any other country in the world, I learned that President Trump has decided to suspend funding for the World Health Organization.
When I saw the news alert pop up on my phone, I almost couldn’t believe it. Almost. It read like an overly-zealous Onion headline. But there it was: Our president has decided that the best way to deflect blame from his mismanagement of the public health crisis is to handicap the central organization working to solve it. One might compare the decision to fanning the flames of a fire, blaming the fire department as they try to put the fire out, then taking away their hoses and fire extinguishers as everything burns down.
President Trump has justified his decision to halt funding by stating that the WHO covered up the coronavirus outbreak when it first appeared in Wuhan, China, and that it “failed to adequately obtain, vet, and share information in a timely and transparent fashion.” But reports show that these statements are inaccurate and fraught with hypocrisy.
If we want the WHO to do a better job, actively engaging with the process is always a superior strategy to cutting, running, and wishing for the best.
While the WHO certainly made mistakes, it acted more quickly than many national governments, sounding the alarm about a potential pandemic and declaring the outbreak an international public health emergency by late January. President Trump ignored the WHO’s warnings, ignored concerns about coronavirus raised by US intelligence agencies, dismissed the Center for Disease Control’s warnings about an impending pandemic in late February, and even disregarded his own administration’s pandemic plan, which specifically calls for “continued support” for the WHO.
Instead of taking responsibility for his negligence, President Trump has actively undermined the work of an organization that is critical not only to responding to this pandemic, but also to preventing future infectious disease outbreaks, the quantity and diversity of which are gradually but inexorably increasing.
A BETTER APPROACH
In the words of the former US Ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke: “Blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.” The UN and its subsidiaries like the WHO are instruments that are only as effective as their member governments. If we want the WHO to do a better job, actively engaging with the process is always a superior strategy to cutting, running, and wishing for the best.
As the biggest funding source for the WHO, the US provides approximately 20% of the organization’s programmatic budget, which amounted to an estimated $419 million in assessed and voluntary contributions in 2019. While this number is a drop in the bucket for the US, which spends over $700 billion per year on the military, these funds are integral to WHO’s work responding to and preventing health emergencies like COVID-19, combatting both communicable and non-communicable diseases like HIV and cancer, increasing access to health care, assisting in the development of vaccines, and building strong healthcare networks in low-income countries.
While COVID-19 is an unprecedented pandemic, public health crises of the future will become increasingly borderless, numerous, and severe. In order for the US to adequately prepare itself for the next global health crisis, at a minimum, we must do two key things. First, we must invest in providing affordable, quality, and equitable access to health care and fix our deeply flawed health care system. Second, we must heed the warnings of public health experts, and increase our support and collaboration with international coordinating health bodies like the WHO in order to better prevent and handle crises.
I don’t work at the WHO anymore, but the people who do are some of the most competent and compassionate public health experts out there. I count myself lucky to have learned from them. We need them at their best if we’re going to navigate through this mess.
Defunding the WHO and rejecting international collaboration will not only hurt people in other countries, but it will also hurt us — during this pandemic and beyond.
Jennifer Lee is the Technology & Liberty Manager at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, where she leads policy and legislative work at the intersection of technology, surveillance, privacy, and civil liberties.