Trump’s actions against the WHO put U.S. national security, public health at risk

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The last thing that Trump should do in the middle of a planetary pandemic is to threaten to deprive the WHO of the funding that it needs to be the first line of defense.

On April 25, a bevy of world leaders met virtually to discuss the development and production of vaccines and other critical tools to combat Covid-19.  Global leaders who participated in the event, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, among others, included the heads of state of Spain, South Africa, Germany, Vietnam, and Costa Rica,

Representatives of one nation were conspicuous by their absence. The United States – the country that’s been ravaged most by the pandemic, accounting for nearly a third of all the confirmed global Covid-19 cases and more than a fourth of the total fatalities worldwide – did not participate.

The United States wasn’t at the event because one of the co-hosts was the World Health Organization (WHO). Other co-hosts, in addition to Macron, were the President of the European Commission and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Unfortunately, the WHO, which is responsible for monitoring global public health and overseeing pandemic responses, is the latest multilateral entity to be in President Donald Trump’s purgatory. The president announced on April 15 that he was halting funding for the UN agency for 60 days, pending an investigation into the organization’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The United States is the WHO’s largest funder contributing $400 million last year.

Trump’s action will impact not only WHO.  It will also have an effect on the U.S. scientists and doctors working round the clock to develop vaccines to slow down Covid-19.   Their heroic efforts will be hamstrung by Trump’s decision to halt funding for WHO, which is a UN agency.

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For more than seven decades, this UN agency has led humanity’s fight against epidemics and pandemics. It successfully coordinated the global fight against a number of diseases ranging from smallpox and polio to HIV/AIDS, Ebola and malaria. It has also helped contain many deadly diseases from entering the U.S. mainland. Among the many important roles WHO performs is preparing countries for health emergencies and when such emergencies occur, detect and respond to them.

At a time when the United States is losing, on an average, more than 2,000 Americans a day to the Coronavirus, squeezing an organization that is spearheading the fight against the disease and to not be a part of the process to speed up and deploy vaccines to tackle the deadly virus is reckless. It puts U.S. public health and national security at additional unnecessary risk.

As of April 28, the number of Americans tested positive for Coronavirus crossed 1 million and U.S. fatalities topped 57,000. Soon, the total the American lives lost to Covid-19 will outnumber total U.S. deaths in the Vietnam War: 58,209. The United States lost more men and women in only three wars: The Civil War and the two World Wars.

This is an enormous human cost.  The Coronavirus should teach America and other nations around the world two cardinal lessons.

First, that public health is a vital part of national security. A pathogen originating in a distant corner of earth can destroy economies and ravage communities.  Second, we were and are ill-prepared to tackle a pandemic like the coronavirus.

On October 24, 2019, roughly two months before the coronavirus began its deadly dance in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, three highly regarded organizations released a Global Health Security Index (GHSI or index) in Washington, DC, ranking countries based on their preparedness to face a pandemic.

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The index, a joint project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Economist Intelligence Unit, all highly reputable organizations, examined the health security capabilities of 195 countries worldwide. These groups issued a stern warning pointing out there are “severe weaknesses in countries abilities to prevent, detect, and respond to significant disease outbreaks” and stating unequivocally “health security is fundamentally weak around the world, and no country is fully prepared to handle an epidemic or pandemic.”

The United States ranked first on the GHSI with an overall value of 83.5.  It fell short, however, in some critical indicator areas including:  access to health care where it ranked 175 out of 195, socio-economic resilience with a ranking of 59; and exercising response plans with a ranking of 54.

The deficiencies in these areas, in conjunction with the lack of presidential and federal leadership, help to explain why the U.S. has stumbled in responding to the Covid-19 onslaught.  Now nearly 120 days into the onslaught of the pandemic, no country in the world has suffered from the disease worse than the United States.

Trump’s temporary suspension of WHO funding indicates that the president is more interested in scoring political points and running for re-election than serving U.S. national interests and the larger public health.

This should not be the case.  The last thing that the United States should do in the middle of a planetary pandemic is to threaten to deprive the WHO of the funding that it needs to be the first line of defense and the world’s go-to resource for combating this pandemic.

This should not be a time for the United States to go AWOL.  This should be a time for the U.S. to stand and deliver. It should be a time for the U.S. to commit additional support to WHO and the countries that have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. It should be a time for the U.S. to resume its status as a global leader and to serve as a role model by joining with and uniting the nations of the world to win the Covid-19 war.

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