GENEVA: In a heartfelt plea for unity, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief sought to rise above sharp criticism and threats of funding cuts from United States President Donald Trump over the agency’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The vocal defense from the WHO director general came a day after Trump blasted the United Nations (UN) agency for being “China-centric” and alleging that it had “criticized” his ban of travel from China as the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) outbreak was spreading from the city of Wuhan.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus projected humility and minimized his personal role while decrying invective and even racist slurs against him amid the organization’s response to the disease.
The new coronavirus has infected more than 1.4 million people and cost over 83,000 lives around the globe.
“Why would I care about being attacked when people are dying?” the WHO chief said. “I know that I am just an individual. Tedros is just a dot in the whole universe.”
He dodged questions about Trump’s comments while acknowledging the agency was made up of humans “who make mistakes” and insisted his key focus was saving lives, not getting caught up in politics.
“No need to use Covid-19 to score political points. You have many other ways to prove yourself,” Tedros said. “If you don’t want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicizing it.”
Avoiding any direct mention of Trump, Tedros’ comments testified to the often-delicate task faced by UN leaders when criticized by member states. That challenge is especially difficult with the US, the biggest donor to the world body and its offshoots.
WHO Europe regional director Hans Kluge said with the pandemic at an acute stage, “this is not the time to cut back on funding.”
At the White House on Tuesday, Trump first said the US would “put a hold” on WHO funding and then revised that to say, “We will look at ending funding.” He took aim particularly at its alleged criticism of the US ban on travel to and from China.
“The WHO…receives vast amounts of money from the US,” he said. “And they actually criticized and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it. And they were wrong. They’ve been wrong about a lot of things.”
Generally, the WHO has been careful not to criticize countries on their national polices, and it was not immediately clear what specific criticism Trump was alluding to.
The US contributed nearly $900 million to WHO’s budget for 2018 to 2019, according to information on the agency’s website. That represents one-fifth of its total $4.4 billion budget for those years.
The US gave nearly three-fourths of the funds in “specified voluntary contributions” and the rest in “assessed” funding as part of Washington’s commitment to UN institutions.
A more detailed WHO budget document provided by the US mission in Geneva showed the US provided $452 million in 2019, including nearly $119 million in assessed funding.
In its most recent budget proposal from February, the Trump administration called for slashing the US-assessed funding contribution to the WHO to $57.9 million.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated later Wednesday that the US was reevaluating its WHO funding, saying “it hasn’t accomplished what it was intended to deliver.