Trump’s WHO attacks: Fair criticism or scapegoating?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Trump last week called for the U.S. to withhold funding for the World Health Organization over what he claimed were missteps that perpetuated the coronavirus pandemic. “The reality is that the WHO failed to adequately obtain and share information in a timely and transparent fashion,” Trump said.

The WHO is an agency within the United Nations established after World War II to promote health and fight disease around the globe. The U.S. provides the WHO with more than $400 million a year, the most of any nation. Trump called for a halt in those funds while a review of the WHO’s handling of the pandemic is conducted.

Trump has accused the WHO of uncritically parroting misinformation pushed by the Chinese government that underplayed the risks posed by the virus during the early weeks of the outbreak. The organization’s deference to China allowed the virus to spread internationally, resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths, he said.

The WHO’s director-general defended the agency in response to Trump’s criticism. “This is a time for all of us to be united,” he said. “When we are divided, the virus exposes the cracks between us.”

Why there’s debate

Trump isn’t alone in critiquing the WHO’s handling of coronavirus. Infectious disease experts have been critical of the agency’s failure to challenge China’s optimistic claims about the virus, most crucially doubting evidence from Taiwan in mid-January that it could be transmitted from human to human.

For this and other perceived mistakes, the president’s attacks on the WHO have been echoed by his Republican lawmakers and conservative media figures. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham accused the agency of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” Supporters of the decision to defund the WHO say the move is necessary to force change in an organization that is too mired in politics to complete its mission.

Trump’s critics say he’s using the WHO as a scapegoat for his administration’s own mismanagement of the crisis. The agency’s mistakes are in no way an excuse for the government’s inability to properly prepare for the virus’s inevitable emergence in the U.S., they argue.

The choice to defund the WHO has received especially pointed criticism. For all its flaws, the WHO still plays a critical role in protecting the world from a long list of dangerous health risks. Denying the agency a major source of funding will cause unnecessary deaths, some experts say.

What’s next

Trump didn’t provide details on how the funding freeze would be carried out. There’s some question about whether it’s within his authority to do so, since the money is appropriated by Congress. It’s also unclear when a review of the WHO’s actions might begin or how that process might be carried out.


Fair Criticism

The WHO should carry most of the blame for the severity of the pandemic

“As the death toll climbs above 100,000, the global economy remains in crisis, and billions of lives are disrupted, it's important to remember that if the World Health Organization had done its job, the nightmare we're living through might not have happened at all.” — Zach Weissmueller, Reason

The WHO is part of a broken system that needs to be fixed

“The president’s action is the first step needed to spark meaningful reform of the United Nations organization and the global health architecture.” — Gordon G. Chang, Fox News

The U.S. has a right to investigate the WHO’s mistakes

“The question is: Why? Why is the WHO so willing to look the other way with regard to China’s faults, even though it is plainly obvious that the regime’s communist leaders bear primary responsibility for this pandemic? This is a question that demands an answer, and Trump is right to pursue it.” — Kaylee McGhee, Washington Examiner

Trump is attacking the WHO because he can’t be as aggressive with China

“Trump is correct that the WHO has failed to perform one of its most important functions: Serving as the world’s early-warning system for new infectious diseases. But his anger is misdirected. It is China that is still not being fully transparent about the outbreak. The problem is that Trump has fewer options and less leverage with China.” — Eli Lake, Bloomberg

Trump’s mistakes shouldn’t shield the WHO from criticism

“It’s no secret that the White House got off to a late start in combating the coronavirus. …but this obviously doesn’t vindicate the World Health Organization.” — Editorial, National Review

The WHO should have countered China’s lies

“In effect, China and the WHO worked together to expose the rest of the world to the virus, at the same time they downplayed its dangers. China acted as you’d expect. Countries that run gulags aren’t typically noted for their good governance and transparency. The WHO is supposed to be different.” — Rich Lowry, New York Post


Trump is trying to find someone else to blame for his mistakes

“None of this exonerates the WHO of its early errors, which were real and serious. But in calling out these missteps, Trump is not acting in good faith in the least: He’s solely doing it to deflect blame from his own catastrophic failures.” — Greg Sargent, Washington Post

The WHO is the perfect kind of scapegoat for the Trump era

“The WHO ticks all the boxes of a perfect scapegoat. Big multilateral bureaucracy based in Switzerland? Check. Friendly to China? Double check. Receives large U.S. donations? Yep. Even if Trump missed all of those signs, which he never would, Republican Senators have been vigorously pointing them out.” — Therese Raphael, Bloomberg

Trump is trying to change the subject to something other than the administration’s errors

“When Trump is ensnared in controversy, when he is being asked straightforward, damning questions and his inquisitors do not stop asking them, he says or does something outrageous to change the subject. It works every time. It is working now.” — Graeme Wood, Atlantic

Defunding the WHO will make the pandemic worse

“Trump’s announcement that he is halting American funding for the W.H.O. just as the world is facing a raging pandemic is a dangerous attempt to find a scapegoat for his own failings. It is like taking away a fire department’s trucks in the middle of a blaze.” — Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP