President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. support for the World Health Organization (WHO) is eliciting understandable questions and skepticism, with many fearing the move could hamper U.S. and global efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic. But these fears are largely misplaced.
“We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and directing those funds to worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” Trump said.
The WHO’s record on tackling COVID-19 has been a catalog of errors. Even supporters of the organization acknowledge the institution needs fundamental reform. As it stands, the WHO lacks accountability and has not represented good value for the money spent by U.S. taxpayers.
For example, in 2017 The Associated Press found:
According to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press, the U.N. health agency routinely has spent about $200 million a year on travel expenses, more than what it doles out to fight some of the biggest problems in public health, including AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined…
With a staff of about 37,000 aid workers versus WHO’s 7,000 staffers, Doctors Without Borders spends about $43 million on travel a year.
Co-operation to tackle global health threats is undoubtedly beneficial, but such efforts are rarely facilitated when filtered through a supranational institution, lacking accountability or transparency. Instead of reflexively assuming WHO is doing a good job, we should recognize the dangers in attempting to centralize scientific authority in a single body with a one-size-fits-all approach to highly complex problems.
Instead of preparing the world for a disastrous pandemic, the WHO has busied itself with counterproductive, and unscientific campaigns against vaping and urging governments to regulate people’s lifestyle choices.
Withdrawing support for the WHO is not synonymous with withdrawing support for world health. The U.S. government can and will continue to engage with countries around the world to limit the damage from COVID-19. The private and nonprofit sectors will continue to advance public health goals.
There is nothing to fear from withholding financial support for an institution with such a stunning record of failure and a bewildering range of priorities that deviate so far from its original mission of tackling infectious diseases. Resources would be better directed to public health organizations that have a proven track record of success and are beyond reproach when it comes to questions of political influence over scientific and medical decisions.