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'As Dangerous As It Sounds': Reactions To U.S. Plan To Defund WHO During A Pandemic

President Trump's plan to put a hold on U.S. funding for the World Health Organization during a global pandemic "is as dangerous as it sounds," says billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder joined others defending the WHO, which they say is doing vital work to fight COVID-19.

The coronavirus has plunged the world into a crisis that's being compared to World War II and the Great Depression. It's the worst time possible, Gates and others say, to take money away from the U.N. health agency.

"Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds," Gates said via Twitter. "Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever."

The U.S. is the top contributor to the WHO; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is second. Trump announced on Tuesday that he would order the U.S. to stop funding the WHO while his administration reviews the organization – which he accused of "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus."

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres also spoke out against Trump's plan to defund the WHO, saying now is the time for unity, not cutting health resources.

The WHO is "absolutely critical to the world's efforts to win the war against COVID-19," Guterres said.

Public health specialists interviewed by NPR characterize Trump's position as a misstep that would strip critical resources from the world's response to the pandemic.

"This is a terrible time to do this and is short-sighted," says Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, "It's destabilizing and damaging to the global enterprise that we're all needing to be engaged in" — in the midst of a pandemic that has so far stricken more than 2 million people and killed more than 128,000, according to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University.

Trump has framed the funding suspension as a response to his perception that the WHO is overly influenced by China. "I think there's criticism that could be given to WHO about how it took China's word for everything in the beginning," says Kates, but "I don't think pulling funding would help."

Lawrence Gostin is a law professor at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, which is an independent agency that works with the WHO. Asked about Trump's defunding plan, he told NPR, "on face value, the impact would be enormous."

"We are cutting funding to a global health agency when this pandemic is on the verge of sweeping through low- and middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America," Gostin said, calling the coronavirus a once-in-a-lifetime threat.

In Gostin's view, Trump's stand "sends a toxic political signal that the United States is not interested in supporting a robust global health leadership."

Many critics of Trump's move say he's attempting to shift blame for problems in his administration's response to the coronavirus. The U.S. currently has more than 600,000 confirmed coronavirus cases — far more than any other country in the world, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard.

"Blaming does not help. The virus knows no borders," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said of Trump's plan via Twitter. He added that even without any U.S. cuts, the WHO is already underfunded.

In the future, Guterres says, countries and agencies will need to review how they interpreted the dire threat posed by the coronavirus, so they can improve their responses to future outbreaks.

"But now is not that time," he added.

Around the same time Trump announced his plan, the WHO released a "strategy update" for controlling COVID-19, including six criteria for lifting lockdown measures. The question of when to relax shutdown orders and reopen economies has sparked political arguments in the U.S., with Trump facing off against several states this week.

The majority of the WHO's biennial budget — $5.6 billion, in the most recent term — comes through specified voluntary contributions. The U.S. is responsible for nearly 15% of the funding in that category. The U.S. also accounts for 22% of the $1 billion the WHO brings in through "assessed contributions" from member nations.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.