President Donald Trump justified his recent announcement that the U.S. would halt further payments to the World Health Organization by claiming that “the WHO failed to adequately obtain, vet and share information in a timely and transparent fashion” about the coronavirus pandemic. This charge has been widely rebutted by global health experts and practitioners. WHO representatives, journalists and academics have all demonstrated that the organization was doing what it could through diplomatic channels with Beijing to get updated information about the novel coronavirus that first emerged in central China and has since spread around the world. Contrary to Trump’s accusations, the WHO took early and forceful actions to warn governments of the threat from the virus.
It remains uncertain whether Chinese authorities were fully transparent in sharing information during the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan. While there is evidence to suggest that official Chinese data on the pandemic should be viewed with skepticism, international criticism of Beijing’s response may be partly colored by long-standing suspicions based on China’s opaque responses to previous outbreaks, such as SARS. Yet Trump’s criticism of the WHO for being overly deferential to China seems at odds with many of his statements—for example, his tweet in late January that, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”
Other comments from members of Trump’s Cabinet suggest that his administration has an incomplete understanding of what the WHO does. “We need the World Health Organization to do its job,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently, “to perform its primary function, which is to make sure that the world has accurate, timely, effective real information about what’s going on in the global health space.” Yet the WHO’s objective, as laid out in its constitution, is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.” Responding to emergencies is just one part of the WHO’s work, which spans efforts to achieve universal health coverage—which Trump also likely disagrees with—as well as other areas of concern, ranging from tobacco control to road safety.