Donald Trump isn’t the first president to threaten to cut funding from the World Health Organization (WHO), but he’s the first to actually do it. And, in the middle of a global pandemic, when this agency is saving lives, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
I worked at the WHO in Geneva four decades ago in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s election. The WHO had been one of the lead agencies at that time in placing checks on deceptive marketing practices of infant formula companies that were proselytizing women to shift from breast milk to baby formula. In this work, the WHO was placing health before corporate profits.
After infant formula, the WHO turned its attention to tobacco and alcohol, and I was hired to research the massive advertising budgets of the global drinks companies. However, the Reagan administration opposed any interference by global agencies in what they euphemistically called “the free market.” In reality, they were simply protecting the bottom line of their corporate benefactors.
Reagan officials told the higher ups at the WHO and several other U.N. agencies that the U.S. would appreciate it if they stopped interfering in the market. The WHO, heavily dependent on U.S. contributions, eliminated this work and continued to receive the U.S. payments.
The study on the alcoholic beverages that I had been writing with a colleague was pulled back from Oxford University Press, where the WHO had planned to publish it.
Ever since the early Reagan years, the right wing in this country has waged war on U.N. agencies such as the WHO. They’ve called these agencies ineffective, but the truth is they’re more worried about the bottom line for a small number of multinational corporations.
Now, Trump is trying to further that mission for even more venal reasons: shifting blame for his own catastrophic failure on containing the coronavirus pandemic, even as he and his far-right business allies — like the DeVos family, who sponsored anti-quarantine protests in Michigan and elsewhere, often by heavily armed protesters — lobby to set it ablaze again by reopening the economy.
Trump announced in a tweet on April 14 that he was “halting funding” for the global health organization.
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He charged the WHO with colluding with the Chinese and failing to “share information in a timely and transparent fashion.” This despite the fact that top Trump officials, including the National Institute of Health’s Anthony Fauci, had been consulting with the WHO on a regular basis throughout the crisis.
As is the case with all large organizations, the WHO is far from perfect. Yet it is playing a key role in poorer countries, and its importance will only grow as the pandemic spreads in these nations.
Most have health systems ill-equipped to blunt the virus’ deadly effect, and many are water scarce at precisely the moment when water — always vital to survival — is especially important for handwashing to slow the virus’ spread. Michel Merson, the former director of Duke University’s Global Health Institute, has written that the “World Health Organization is the main lifeline for these countries to avoid millions of cases and deaths.”
The editor of the Lancet medical journal called Trump’s funding cut “a crime against humanity.” He tweeted that “every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity.”
The story line from Reagan to Trump is the same: undermining global public health to serve narrow interests. For Reagan, it was to help a few well-connected corporate backers. For Trump, it may be to help a single billionaire in particular — himself.
Only now, we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s only just begun to devastate the vulnerable regions that need the WHO the most. The United States shouldn’t be cutting support now.
We should be increasing it.