America’s withdrawal from the WHO is unhealthy for us all

US President Donald Trump suspended US involvement with the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 19, and threatened that the US would withdraw completely unless the WHO undertook “substantive reforms” within 30 days.

The president did not even wait 30 days. Last Friday he said the US would “today be terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs.”

But what does “today” mean? The US was a founding member of the WHO in 1948, when Congress passed a resolution later approved by the organization allowing for the US to leave with a year’s notice. Terminology matters in international law, which leaves the president’s announcement somewhat imprecise.

There are other implications. The US gives more money to the WHO than any other contributor. In 2019 the organization’s budget was $5.6 billion, of which 17 percent was “assessed” country contributions and 80 percent was voluntary. The US paid $419 million, of which $119 million was assessed and $300 million was voluntary. And the damage from the US withdrawal, whatever form it takes, goes beyond finance; it matters to the world at large.

The WHO has myriad constituents; member countries, other contributors, or collaborators such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The organization values its prized access to national governments and their health data and research facilities, which explains why it errs on the side of diplomacy and criticizes member countries behind closed doors rather than in public.

The damage from the US withdrawal from WHO, whatever form it takes, goes beyond finance; it matters to the world at large.

Cornelia Meyer

After withdrawing, the US could still collaborate in open programs in which the WHO participates. The only program that is bespoke to the organisation is polio eradication, which nobody can deny is a worthwhile and important mission.

Other than through its programs, the WHO collaborates with 82 US research institutes, 21 of which are based at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Canceling that collaboration would have a devastating impact, given the pre-eminent US position in medical and pharmaceutical research.

It is true that, like other UN institutions, and indeed the UN itself, the WHO would benefit from reform. However, all in all, the world needs the WHO and the WHO needs the prowess of America’s research and development capability. One could also argue that the US needs the network and access to public health issues and emergencies that the WHO provides, especially as it withdraws more and more from the multilateral global architecture.

Last, and probably most important, we have to be aware that the next battle against COVID-19 will not be fought in the hospitals of New York or Chicago. It will be fought in Kano, General Santos and Manaus. The virus is rapidly moving to the southern hemisphere, where healthcare systems are less developed and there is no funding, especially in developing countries. When it takes hold there it will affect the weakest of the weak with little or no access to medical care. It will affect people in slums where hygiene measures and social distancing are either inaccessible or impossible.

The world at large will find out that we are all our brother’s keeper, when the virus rebounds from the southern hemisphere to the streets of New York and Paris. We all have an interest in organizations such as the WHO being able to do their work with cooperation from every country.

  • Cornelia Meyer
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