By J Nastranis
NEW YORK (IDN) – While upholding the importance of international solidarity in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, a “dangerous enemy” to all humanity, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has regretted “the decision of the President of the United States to order a halt in funding” to the UN health agency.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was speaking to journalists on April 15, one day after President Donald Trump announced that it was cutting funding to the UN health agency, pending a review of how the agency responded to the initial outbreak in China that first surfaced at the very end of December.
Tedros responded by saying the United States “has been a long-standing and generous friend to WHO and we hope it will continue to be so. We regret the decision of the president of the U.S. to order a halt of funding to WHO.” He added that “WHO is reviewing the impact on our work of any withdrawal of U.S. funding and will work with our partners to fill any financial gaps we face and to ensure our work continues uninterrupted.”
President Trump’s attack on the World Health Organization (WHO) comes in the midst of bashing at home for a failure to respond aggressively to the virus, which as of April 15 had claimed more than 28,000 lives in the United States and infected at least 600,000 people in all 50 states.
Tedros underlined the agency’s commitment to serving the world’s people, but also to accountability for the use of its resources.
“In due course, WHO’s performance in tackling this pandemic will be reviewed by WHO’s Member States and the independent bodies that are in place, to ensure transparency and accountability. This is part of the usual process put in place by our Member States,” he stated.
Trump did not specify how much money he intends to put on hold. In WHO’s two-year, 2018–2019 budget cycle, the United States was the largest single donor, providing almost $900 million of WHO’s $5.6 billion budget.
As Science reported, in general, the White House can delay disbursing money already appropriated by Congress for a specific purpose, but must get approval from Congress to cancel such spending outright. Trump may be able to divert some of the funds appropriated to WHO to other similar purposes without getting express permission from Congress. It would likely be difficult for the White House to reclaim money already sent to WHO.
Tedros upheld WHO’s fundamental and founding commitment to public health and to science, and its mandate to work with all nations on equal terms.
“COVID-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small. It does not discriminate between nationalities, ethnicities or ideologies,” he said. “Neither do we. This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat – a dangerous enemy.”
Agreeing with Tedos, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has stressed: “This virus is unprecedented in our lifetime and requires an unprecedented response. Obviously, in such conditions, it is possible that the same facts have had different readings by different entities.
“Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis. The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges, as they may arise in the future. But now is not that time.”
As it is not that time, Guterres says, it is also not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus. “Now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences.”
In an update on the “Solidarity Trial” launched on March 18, Tedos said, research continues into medicines to treat the new coronavirus disease. So far, more than 90 countries have either joined or expressed interest in the initiative to compare the effectiveness of four treatment options, with more than 900 patients enrolled.
“Three vaccines have already started clinical trials, more than 70 others are in development, and we’re working with partners to accelerate the development, production and distribution of vaccines,” said Tedros.
WHO has also convened groups of clinicians to study the impact of corticosteroids and other anti-inflammatory drugs on treatment outcomes.
“Specifically, we are looking at oxygen use and ventilation strategies in patients,” he said, adding that “any intervention that reduces the need for ventilation and improves outcomes for critically ill patients is important – especially in low-resource settings, to save lives.”
The health agency chief also reported on the first UN Solidarity Flights which on April 14 transported personal protective equipment, ventilators and other lifesaving medical supplies to countries across Africa.
It is part of what he described as “a massive effort” to deliver these items to 95 countries worldwide, in conjunction with fellow UN agencies and other partners such as the Global Fund and the vaccine alliance, GAVI. “Whether it is by land, sea or air, WHO staff are working around the clock to deliver for health workers and communities everywhere,” Tedos added.
Staying safe, social and sane
With millions now forced to stay at home to avert further spread of the new coronavirus, WHO officials have reminded people worldwide of the value of remaining in contact with their families and friends.
“There is no doubt that restrictive measures, stay-at-home orders, restriction of movement, have been quite isolating for people, and all the more isolating for people who are already isolated or vulnerable,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director, in response to a journalist’s question about mental health during the pandemic.
Dr. Ryan said like the rest of the world, WHO wants to do away with “these more draconian lockdowns,” which will require governments to step up investment in areas such as public health infrastructure and community education.
Dr. Maria van Kerhkove of WHO’s Emerging Diseases and Zoonoses Unit, recalled that the agency has replaced the expression “social distancing” with “physical distancing” to emphasize the importance of human contact.
She provided ways people can mind their mental health at this time, such as staying physically active, meditating, and taking time for themselves. “There’s no lockdown on laughter; there’s no lockdown on talking to your family and finding ways to connect,” she said.
Behind Trump’s attack on WHO
As the New York Times reported, Trump publicly shrugged off the virus throughout January and much of February, repeatedly saying that it was under control. He said in mid-February that he hoped the virus would “miraculously” disappear when the weather turned warm.
He barred some travel from China in late January, a move that health experts say helped delay widespread infection. But he also presided over a government that failed to make testing and medical supplies widely available and resisted calling for social distancing that allowed the virus to spread for several critical weeks.
“The president’s decision to freeze the WHO funding was backed by many of his closest aides, including Peter Navarro, his trade adviser, and key members of the National Security Council, who have long been suspicious of China. Mr. Trump himself has often offered contradictory messages about the country — repeatedly saying nice things about Mr. Xi even as he wages a fierce, on-again, off-again trade war with China,” said the New York Times
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” Trump tweeted on January 24. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”
At a meeting of his coronavirus task force on April 10, the U.S. President polled all of the doctors in the room about the WHO, says the New York Times quoting an official who attended the meeting. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, reportedly said that the WHO had a “China problem”, and then others around the room — including Dr. Deborah L. Birx, who is coordinating the U.S. response, and Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — agreed with the statement, the official said.
But the president’s critics assailed the timing of the announcement, saying that any assessment of the UN health agency should wait until the threat was over.
Among those questioning the president’s decision to act now was Dr. Redfield, who heaped praise on the WHO during an appearance on April 15 on “CBS This Morning,” saying that questions about what the group did during the pandemic should be left until “after we get through this”.
According to the New York Times, Dr. Redfield said that the WHO remained “a longstanding partner for CDC,” citing efforts to fight the Ebola virus in Africa and the cooperation to limit the spread of the coronavirus. And he added that the United States and the WHO. have “worked together to fight health crises around the world — we continue to do that”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 April 2020]
Photo: WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus briefs virtually on the COVID-19 pandemic in Geneva. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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