Opinion: The answer is to empower, not attack, the World Health Organization

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)

As COVID-19 began to roll across China, leaving thousands dead and catapulting a pathogen on a lethal global trajectory, President Donald Trump had nothing but praise for China’s response and President Xi Jinping. On Jan. 24, Trump tweeted, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency … In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

By Jan. 31st, Trump had announced a partial travel ban from China, but he still downplayed the risk of the virus, declaring as late as Feb. 24 that the situation was “very much under control.” As COVID-19 fanned out across the United States, it became clear that Trump’s wishful thinking had left the country dangerously vulnerable.

Only after the spiking number of U.S. infections made the public health crisis impossible to ignore did President Trump leap into action – to find a scapegoat to blame for his negligence. China, of course, would have been an obvious target. But making China the stooge was difficult given Trump’s repeated praise for Xi’s handling of the crisis. So, Trump needed another patsy. And he quickly found one: the World Health Organization. The president and his right-wing media chorus began to argue that the World Health Organization was ultimately to blame for its failure to challenge Xi’s mishandling of the virus and for helping to paper over the seriousness of the epidemic in the critical early days.

This was grade school-caliber deflection. It was Trump himself, echoing Xi’s own propaganda, who was one of the most prominent voices praising China’s response to the virus throughout January and into early February. The World Health Organization did convey the information they received from China, though too uncritically, while they negotiated permission to get their own team inside the country to make an independent assessment. But by January 29, the WHO was warning the whole world to take action to prepare for the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, as late as Feb. 7, when cases had already been discovered in the United States, Trump was still claiming that Xi had “handled it really well.” On 12 separate occasions during January and February, he repeated Chinese talking points. And it was Trump, not the World Health Organization, who led the chorus of skeptics downplaying the threat from COVID-19. The World Health Organization should have been more skeptical of China’s early assertions, but as an organization dependent on the support of its member states, it would be difficult to contradict its two most powerful members.

Nevertheless, to distract from Trump’s praise for China, and his gross overconfidence, the president and his allies simply decided to claim that it was the WHO, not Trump or Xi, who deserved the blame. And then last week, he took his campaign to discredit the World Health Organization even further, halting U.S. funding in order to place a clearly marked political scarlet letter on the WHO.


The Irreplaceability of the World Health Organization

It should go without saying that it is extremely dangerous to suddenly pull funding from the world’s largest public health organization in the middle of a global pandemic.

The World Health Organization is critical to stopping disease outbreaks and strengthening public health systems in developing countries, where COVID-19 is starting to appear. Yemen announced its first infection earlier this month, and other countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are at severe risk. Millions of refugees rely on the World Health Organization for their health care, and millions of children rely on the WHO and UNICEF to access vaccines.

The World Health Organization is not perfect, but its team of doctors and public health experts have had major successes. Their most impressive claim to fame is the eradication of smallpox – no small feat. More recently, the World Health Organization has led an effort to rid the world of two of the three strains of polio, and they are close to completing the trifecta.

These investments are not just the right thing to do; they benefit the United States. Improving health outcomes abroad provides greater political and economic stability, increasing demand for U.S. exports. And, as we are all learning now, it is in America’s national security interest for countries to effectively detect and respond to potential pandemics before they reach our shores.

As the United States looks to develop a new global system of pandemic prevention, there is absolutely no way to do that job without the World Health Organization. Uniquely, it puts traditional adversaries – like Russia and the United States, India and Pakistan, or Iran and Saudi Arabia – all around the same big table to take on global health challenges. It has relationships with the public health leaders of every nation, decades of experience in tackling viruses and diseases, and the ability to bring countries together to tackle big projects. This ability to bridge divides and work across borders cannot be torn down and recreated – not in today’s environment of major power competition – and so there is simply no way to build an effective international anti-pandemic infrastructure without the World Health Organization at the center.

Trump’s team likely knows this, but they see an opportunity to attack the World Health Organization because of the increasing influence that China has inside the organization. But China’s increasing presence in the WHO is, frankly, of Trump’s making. Like many international organizations, the World Health Organization has watched as over the last three years the United States has disappeared from the global playing field and mercilessly attacked multinational institutions. China, on the other hand, has done the opposite. Sensing the vacuum created by the Trump administration’s global retreat, China has dramatically scaled up its diplomatic presence all over the world and its level of participation and focus on international organizations like the World Health Organization. Yes, the United States still contributes far more to the organization than China. But China’s contributions have grown by 50 percent since 2014, and the world understands which way the wind is blowing. A second Trump term could mean dramatically reduced U.S. funding or the wholesale withdrawal of America from the World Health Organization and other international organizations.

So it is true that the World Health Organization may now be more deferential to China as a growing benefactor. And it is also true that this deference likely contributed to the international body’s downplaying the seriousness of the epidemic in the early days, making embarrassing statements about Taiwan’s response to the virus, and waiting too long to officially declare COVID-19 a pandemic. The World Health Organization should not be let off the hook for these early mistakes. But the organization would have felt less compelled to acquiesce to China had Donald Trump, the leader of the free world, not been doing the exact same thing. And frankly, few in the United States noticed or cared about the World Health Organization’s statements on COVID-19 early on because Trump was fully occupying the lane reserved for China apologists and COVID-19 skeptics.

A New World Health Organization We Deserve, With Renewed American Leadership

How the United States and other countries behave in the wake of COVID-19 may well determine how the coming decades unfold. There will be a strong temptation to see the spread of this deadly virus as an argument for reclusiveness and self-reliance. This sentiment is understandable and even has some merit. For instance, America shouldn’t be so reliant on China and other nations for critical medical supplies. But it would be a mistake to take this line of thinking too far. A world where countries become suspicious of one another and are driven to mercantilism, militarism, and xenophobia, will be a much poorer and more dangerous place.

Rather than seeing COVID-19 as an argument for isolationism, governments should be focused on how we work together to defeat it and epidemics like it. A White House that was sufficiently motivated could push reforms at the World Health Organization that would make it a stronger and more impactful institution. Trump is doing the opposite – walking away and effectively begging China to fill the space left open by America’s departure. The president is missing a major opportunity to stay at the table and use this moment of international crisis as the leverage to create real reform at the World Health Organization.

First, the United States should be enhancing, not tearing down, the World Health Organization’s legitimacy. The body has global reach, including rare access in places like Yemen, Libya, and Syria, but it is not all-powerful. We first need to clarify the body’s mandate. Responding to novel and global pandemics like H1N1, Ebola, or COVID-19 was not foreseen by its founders. In fact its constitution doesn’t mention the word pandemic, merely giving it the role of the “directing and coordinating authority on international health work” including “epidemic, endemic and other diseases.”

On top of that, the body’s recommendations are not considered binding and the World Health Organization has no ability to compel or sanction its members. After it declared a public health emergency for COVID-19, many countries, including the United States, didn’t listen. China refused to provide the World Health Organization with much-needed data for critical weeks. The United States could take the lead, through the World Health Organization, to reform the International Health Regulations and develop new international legal enforcement tools to make sure no country can ever again get away with hiding information about a deadly virus. While giving the World Health Organization the ability to enact and enforce binding resolutions would be an uphill battle, the stakes of inaction are clear.

Second, member states have decided to under-resource and tie the hands of the World Health Organization. We can undo that. Its annual budget of approximately $2.4 billion is less than one-third that of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is less than 36 hours’ worth of U.S. defense spending. No wonder the World Health Organization cannot do everything we expect of it. Without an increase in funding, the World Health Organization will be unable to respond to this outbreak or prepare for the next global health emergency. But it’s also about flexibility. Currently, 75 percent of the organization’s budget is earmarked by donors. This reduces the space for innovative thinking to prevent and prepare for the next crisis. The over-reliance on voluntary contributions makes the World Health Organization hesitant to criticize any donor states, including China. The United States should lead an appeal for all countries to fully pay their dues and to reduce these earmarks.

Third, the World Health Organization must improve coordination between leadership and its regional offices. The heads of the body’s regional offices are political appointees elected by member states in their respective region, with significant budget powers independent of the organization’s headquarters. The 2014 Ebola crisis revealed that this system empowered officials in the regional office who were influenced by political considerations of member states over the World Health Organization’s public health imperatives, and delayed the declaration of a public health emergency by two months. This system is maddening, but instead of throwing up our hands in frustration, the United States could use its diplomatic and financial muscle to prompt reform.

Lastly, a reformed World Health Organization ought to address access to highly in-demand vaccines. We know that when a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, every country will want to vaccinate its citizens first, leading to inefficient distribution. We’ve seen this problem in the past with far less deadly diseases. For example, during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, Australia was among the first to manufacture a vaccine, but did not immediately export it because the Australian government wanted to take care of its citizens first. The World Health Organization, in coordination with other organizations such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, could and should take a leading role in establishing protocols for the unprecedented scale of vaccine production and distribution. This will require establishing a fair and efficient vaccine allocation system.

Rather than withdraw from the World Health Organization, this is the time for America to further invest. And if we make these investments the carrot to push reform, the payoffs could be substantial. Defunding the World Health Organization in the middle of a global pandemic is short-term madness. And forsaking the chance to lead an effort to meaningfully reform the one body that could, under the right circumstances, stop the next pandemic, is foreign policy malpractice.

When COVID-19 crippled a U.S. aircraft carrier, breezed through Border Control, and didn’t respond to Trump’s rhetorical bluster, the president’s national security playbook was left in tatters. Rather than admit that their narrow conception of national defense was wrong, Trump and his allies did what they always do when they conclude that reality is biased against them: they found someone to blame. This time it was the World Health Organization. But the truth is that transnational threats like pandemics are here to stay, and American security will increasingly depend on using our diplomatic heft to strengthen and improve international health organizations like the World Health Organization. It is disturbing that the president doesn’t recognize this fact, and instead sees institutions like the World Health Organization not as a tool to save lives, but to save face.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) serves on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This article was first published on warontherocks.com.


David McCarthy April 26, 2020 at 7:24 am

The president said a bland, reasonable thing before he had all the information. Once he had information, he took action. Democrats and the media have consistently just said the opposite to be politically contrary. From Mayor DeBlasio and AOC saying it was racist to stay home and blasting the president every step he took.

This was a crisis, a time to come together. Instead, every sentence has been parsed to look for ways to twist it. Shame on you all.

As Sen Murphy admits here, China controls the WHO and has used it nefariously. End of discussion

Norwalk native April 26, 2020 at 11:27 am

Mr. Murphy,

You do not represent me.

Your Communist rhetoric and predictable support for global organizations at the expense of the American taxpayer illustrate why your party has lost National credability. That this state embraces the one-party group think of your affiliation, only reflects the ongoing acceleration of its demise. Might I suggest that your time is better spent serving your constituents rather than supporting failed globalist organizations like the WHO.

Bryan Meek April 26, 2020 at 12:09 pm

Who would ever think we’d have a Senator who carries water for the Communist Chinese and Iranian governments?

Ron Morris April 26, 2020 at 4:23 pm

Who would ever think we would have a President that said to drink disinfectant. Oh before anyone says he didn’t say it. I heard him say it.

Mike Lyons April 26, 2020 at 5:46 pm

Ron, are you completely incapable of stating simple truths? You “heard” Trump say “drink disinfectant”? Here is the full quotation of Trump’s statement from the Associated Press (you can watch the video on all major news sites):

“So I asked Bill a question some of you are thinking of if you’re into that world, which I find to be pretty interesting. So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether its ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think you said, that hasn’t been checked but you’re gonna test it. And then I said, supposing it brought the light inside the body, which you can either do either through the skin or some other way, and I think you said you’re gonna test that too, sounds interesting. And I then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute, and is there a way you can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it’d be interesting to check that. So you’re going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds interesting to me, so we’ll see. But the whole concept of the light, the way it goes in one minute, that’s pretty powerful.”

This was a typically clumsy, rambling statement by Trump. In it he ASKS one of the doctors, regarding disinfectants, “is there a way you can so something like that by injection inside?” (a question, not a recommendation, and says “it’d be interesting to check that”. He absolutely, definitively did NOT say “drink disinfectant” (and he didn’t recommend injecting it, either, but ASKED the doctors if it could be done).

So there are two possible explanations for your statement that you “heard” Trump say “drink disinfectant”. First, you’re simply lying. Second, you’re so infected with Trump Derangement Syndrome that you actually believe your falsehood. Either way, its a good indicator of how reliable anyone should consider your other statements on NON.

Mike Lyons April 26, 2020 at 5:51 pm

Regarding the Chinese, its interesting to note that American Democrats’ statements like this are regularly appearing in Chinese Communist Party propaganda outlets. A century ago, Soviet Communist leader Vladimir Lenin observed that Western liberals could often be duped into stupidly advancing Soviet interests against those of their own countries. He had a term for them – “useful idiots”. A good description of Chris Murphy, as he advances the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mitch Adis April 26, 2020 at 9:21 pm

Ron. Deflection is a tactic you use when you are losing a debate. Focus on the Senator. He wrote this article.

M Murray April 27, 2020 at 6:27 am

All one has to do is look at the funding of the WHO to determine whether we should withhold funds or not. The US provides 15% of the WHO’s total funding. The next two largest contributors are Great Britain and a private individual, Bill Gates from the United States who each provide about 10%. The rest of the world provides very little each. Another large source of funding the the WHO is from the United Nations. Guess which country provides 22% of the funding to the United Nations? Yet very little of this WHO money is spent in North America. Let’s withdraw from the WHO and the UN and keep that money at home where it can be spent on those who paid for it with their tax dollars.

Claire schoen April 27, 2020 at 9:21 am

If we walk away from organizations like the WHO, we are only hurting ourselves.

I find it ironic that the same people who are vocal about giving to the local community and supporting their neighbors in a time of crisis can, at the same time, advocate for not helping on the world stage. Happy to share social media posts about making masks for nurses, but let’s not support an organization that is helping refugees in Syria… Where does that get us?

And yes, technically, our president didn’t say “drink the disinfectant,” but come on! All he had to do was suggest it, and he put people at risk. A nurse in Virginia told me last night that they had several patients call in and ask about how best to spray themselves with Lysol after showering. I’m not kidding. There is nothing presidential going on…

Send my tax dollars to WHO, gladly.

Ron Morris April 27, 2020 at 9:24 am

Mike Lyons
You clearly state in your post that
“injection inside, or almost a cleaning” when Trump is referring to disinfectant. Same premise from the kook Trump just different words.
Thank You Mike for admitting that I was correct.

Mitch Adis
No Deflection here. Just pointing out that Trump is kook.

Ryan April 27, 2020 at 11:04 am

Senator Murphy?
You do not represent the best interest of CT or the nation in my opinion sir.
Your rhetoric will not be forgotten or forgive come election time for you.

Eleanor Lx April 27, 2020 at 11:11 am

Senator Murphy raises a good point – why isn’t Trump holding China accountable for the pandemic and worldwide spread? A simple travel ban from the infected country without punitive measures against China is not enough. If China allowed international flights out of Wuhan while restricting flights within their own country, than this should constitute a hostile act and a measured response. China should not be left off the hook on this and Trump appears reluctant to retaliate.

Diane Lauricella April 27, 2020 at 1:33 pm

@ Mike Lyons Wrote ‘Soviet Communist leader Vladimir Lenin observed that Western liberals could often be duped into stupidly advancing Soviet interests against those of their own countries. He had a term for them – “useful idiots”’

Don’t you mean Trump, his Family and the Minions he brought into the White House?? I think you are confused here…Would you finally be willing to be on the record and enthusiastically endorse our current President…since you apparently do not disagree with his behavior…Just curious…

John Miller April 27, 2020 at 2:15 pm

All one needs to do is to pull up the WHO tweet from January 14th where they parrot the Chinese Communist Party claim that there was no evidence that COVID 19 could be transmitted human-to-human to know all you need to know about the political nature of the WHO.

Evidently, Comrade Murphy doesn’t understand this or is a a card carrying ember of the party.

JustATaxpayer April 27, 2020 at 5:23 pm

Hey Chris

We’re here in Fairfield County. What’s your stance on H1-B visas. White collar tech jobs have been pushed to Indian and Chinese folks. Just go sit outside Merritt 7 once the virus is over and you’ll see what us AMERICAN workers have to deal with.

Steve April 27, 2020 at 5:44 pm

Ron. Its people like you who are going to be responsible for the decay of this country. Facts are facts. Lies are lies. I heard what trump said. He asked the dr. If we would be investigating other potential solutions for internal uses. That’s what he said. You represent a common disease among Democrats who believe the lies that are twisted from the truths.

on the Chinese issue, If those if you that believe in retaliation you should understand the risky nature if abrupt action. The Chinese can hold up drugs, precious metals, liquidate all the bonds they own etc. Timing and patience are critical, not panicking.

The Senator does not represent any of the common sense normal residents of Connecticut. He likes hearing himself talk. I am embarrased for him. He has shown no knowledge and doesn’t know what the truth is.

Mike Lyons April 27, 2020 at 6:06 pm

Diane, do you seriously think that Lenin was referring to anti-Communist conservatives when he was talking about people who bought his propaganda? I get it, you hate Trump, but that shouldn’t force your IQ down 40 points. As for my allegedly endorsing Trump’s behaviour, correcting falsehoods about a person isn’t the same as endorsing his behavior. Even in my statement above, I said “This was a typically clumsy, rambling statement by Trump.” I voted against the man in the Republican primary in 2016 and again in the general election (and publicly stated my opposition to him, as was well well-noted in the local GOP at the time – ask Artie Kassimis). But I get the sense that some commenters here (Ron for sure), were Trump to say “2+2=4”, would promptly denounce him and declare that 2+2 must equal 5 if Trump says it’s 4.

Ron, I proved (irrefutably, to anyone capable of rational thought), that your statement that you “heard” Trump say “drink disinfectant” was false. You have now admitted that your statement was false (lamely, indeed Trump-like, coming up with the ‘justification’ that it was just “different words”). So you lied, as I stated. I’m glad you confirmed you lied, but to say that I ‘admitted you were correct’ – by correctly pointing out that you weren’t – proves that you have apparently gone down the rabbit hole. Ron’s living in Wonderland …

Patrick Cooper April 27, 2020 at 7:26 pm

@Eleanor Lx – there are a number of reasons.

What happens when the lender call’s in the loan? The US has put several war’s and a massive tax cut on the credit card – and China (along with Japan) holds a pretty large amount of US debt. (estimated at 1 trillion – likely higher due to holdings in other countries).

I first knew about Coronavirus January 20th. I knew allot about it by January 24th. No one can convince me our Government was in the dark about any of this. It’s long past the time for finger pointing – it’s time to focus on solutions, and a plan for implementation. Everything else is a waste of time and energy.

Al Bore April 27, 2020 at 8:10 pm

Would you finally be willing to be on the record and enthusiastically endorse our current President…since you apparently do not disagree with his behavior…Just curious… For the record Diane I do. In spite of the media and the extreme left that always tries to knock the president he is doing a great job. Take your blinders off just once.

Mr. Liberty April 27, 2020 at 9:04 pm

People who are stupid enough to take “ingestion of disinfectants” or “bathing in bleach” seriously are the same people who voted for Chris Murphy, Richard Blumenthal, Jim Himes, Bob Duff and Ned Lamont. The truth was so bent in the above article. Democrats don’t really believe what they are saying, they just say it to be totally obedient to the hidden mega rich entities who control their marionette strings and want to take back power over all of us.

john j flynn April 27, 2020 at 10:48 pm

Globalists views throwing money to Seria, talking with Iran, and threatening Ukraine, Murphy threatened to remove all DEM support to Ukraine if they assisted Trump the POTUS. Ironically he then accused the President dealing with corruyption of Biden with doing exactly what Chris murphy threaten to do. Foreign policy is determined by the POTUS and Murphy probably had his staff write every word. Its discraceful, the wet market, eating live mice and the biological weapons that are genetically engineered. 5G rollouts, payments from Leitner, Burisma, and the World Health mislead. Our Senator’s answer is to throw more money around to Nations that want to harm us. $24.7 trillion reasons to close the border, stop funding anything that is not in our best interest and Vote Murphy out. This senator is ruining the currency at a time when Murphy stood on a jury and Voted to impeach while getting paid by Ukraine’s lobbyist. Your fired.

Diane Lauricella April 28, 2020 at 11:47 am

@MikeLyons “Ouch! No need to pull on your retired BOE Bully hat and attack my IQ!

I admit that I am not a Lenin Scholar but I am not aware that you are either….However, thank you for reminding me to do a bit of homework about the Lenin propaganda machine.

Also, glad you are stating your issues with Trump, Inc. as I must have missed them…could you get your fellow R’s in Norwalk to speak out?

After all, silence can be seen as tacit approval…
Be well!

Lucy April 28, 2020 at 2:24 pm

Pretty sad how the Republicans are doing everything in their power to cover up the fact that Trump suggested injesting disinfectant. This is yet another case of the Republicans drinking the kool-aid. It’s so sad that Lysol actually had to put out a memo telling them not to ingest their products.

Steve April 29, 2020 at 5:31 am

Mike, the whole thing is a hoax anyway. Dont let that cruise boat dock, it’ll double our numbers. Most here are still stuck with commie rhetoric from 1950. Geez you have an incompetent narcissist in the White House who you consistently excuse from any normal standard of decency. Virtually everyone he initially selected for a post left under bad circumstances from Flynn to Kelly, to the most recent Acting Naval Secretary who was there because the prior Navy Secretary was forced out after the Narcissist pushed him out for supporting military rules of conduct. Loads of sycophants here, hypocritically criticizing the government for shutting down businesses while they quarantine themselves and pray for their children and parents not to get sick and stay at home. REmember when the Narcissist gaslighted about Obama during hte Ebola scare…what did you say? Sorry, you and others criticize our one party City…We should have a two party system, there was a day when the Republican Party had footing in Norwalk. The Dems didnt steal it, the Republicans squandered it with Medicare recipients who want thei government to get their hands of health care and with a President who constantly lies and cheats. It’s time to just take your malaria pills, do a little rubdown with some Lysol and hang out under sun tanning lights.—-if only we had a sane and reasonable 2nd party in this City, many of us long for it…

Steve Mann April 29, 2020 at 2:41 pm

Tough to imagine what else goes on in a mind that has convinced itself that something that wasn’t said was, and that the speaker is somehow responsible for any consequences of those twisted words. Delusion is a word that comes to mind.

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