US quitting WHO: does the world need to worry?

US President Trump’s harangue against WHO and his decision to stop meeting the financial commitment to WHO at a time when the world’s health body needs the most support to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is a crime against humanity. Yet, the world need not worry, WHO will be a better place if the US eventually quits it. The US has always been looking for opportunities to throttle all the democratic arms of the UN system- except the veto enabled Security Council- that are run on  democratic mandates provided by the member states on a one-country-one-vote basis. 

As the US has become the world’s new hotspot for COVID-19 and the failure of the Trump administration as well as the country’s profit-driven health care system become glaringly obvious, Trump is invoking his practice of finding scapegoats for his unforgivable failures. Trump cannot spell out what was wrong with WHO, in fact he tweeted on 24 January appreciating “China’s efforts and transparency” when US already had two positive cases, the only discernible point he mentioned was the omission of WHO to support his 31 January decision restricting travel from China on account of the virus. This was preposterous. 

Trump was alluding to a WHO recommendation on international traffic in the context of COVID-19 addressed to the entire community of nations, issued on 27 February. In this temporary recommendation WHO mentioned, “In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.” It further stated, “travel measures that significantly interfere with international traffic may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak, as they may allow countries to gain time, even if only a few days, to rapidly implement effective preparedness measures”. This advisory was not US specific, but to the whole community of nations, and issued about a month after the US decision to restrict travels from China. And the US is a country that routinely disregards the decisions of the UN agencies including the UN General Assembly, why was it then worried about a global advisory of a UN agency. Trump was trying to find scapegoats in an outlandish manner, knowing well that UN bureaucrats cannot pay back in kind using the same language he uses. 

Trump then made the sweeping allegation that WHO is China-centric, again without giving any specifics. WHO’s policy decisions are made by its World Health Assembly comprised of 194 countries as members and two countries as associate members. The conduct of the WHA is based on a set of democratic rules of procedure and on issues of North-South divide it is often the case that the decisions adopted are fair and balanced due to the majority enjoyed by the developing countries. This is always a point of concern for the US, as with most other democratic UN fora. However, if the WHO secretariat, ie the bureaucracy, is biased towards any country that is the US. Most of the procurement of supplies of medicines, equipment and services by or through WHO is from the US. This has been widely criticised and ought to change. Public health policy experts hold the concern that the US multinational pharmaceutical companies lobby with the WHO bureaucracy to sell their products and to influence health policy decisions in favour of their commercial interests. It is actually a welcome move that Trump has started this debate on bias.

Trump has callously handled the emerging pandemic in his country. On February 9 when the US had 15 cases of COVID-19 he belittled the emerging threat saying, "the flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year". As days passed by and Trump woke up to the threat, he said that the country had the possibility of witnessing 100,000 deaths or more. As of writing the US has got 1,131,452 cases of infections and 65,776 deaths. And there seems to be no let up in the trend and Trump needs to find scapegoats.

Trump’s personal diatribe against the WHO director general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus is appalling but not surprising given Trump's racist proclivity. He was joined by the global outcaste Taiwan, with racist slurs. Tedros has also disclosed death threats received by him. Tedros, an eminent public health expert who has made remarkable contribution in addressing infectious diseases both in his native Ethiopia and globally, was elected by the World Health Assembly in 2017, in an election that was termed ‘more transparent than ever before’ by the British medical journal Lancet. The election, held in several rounds, only a few western countries supported the other final candidate David Nabarro of UK. WHO has been playing an invaluable role in managing the COVID-19 crisis globally through increasing understanding of the disease, coordinating with multiple countries, setting protocols, promoting cooperative research, securing supplies to needy countries even beyond its resource limitation and collating and analysing global disease data and issuing common advisories. The world would have been much worse without WHO in a critical time like this.

Whereas what Trump did in the ‘global spirit’ was outright piracy. A shipment of 400,000 protective equipment from China meant for Tamil Nadu was forcefully diverted to the US and this followed such forceful diversions to the US of shipments scheduled for Germany, France and Canada. The political leaderships these countries protested the devious method of the US while the Indian government kept strange but understandable silence. As if the damage caused by Trump in having his fan Modi organise a gathering of 100,000 people in Ahmedabad to please him on 24 February, a week after the WHO advisory against public gatherings was not enough. And Gujarat, as the second most affected state has already lost 214 lives and has 4395 confirmed cases of infection.

Financial throttling

US decision refusing to pay the mandatory annual dues to WHO reflects the US’ disregard for the multilateral democratic organisations. UN organisations are run on mandatory annual assessed contributions paid by the member states using on an agreed scale of assessment which is relative to the wealth and population of each country. Accordingly, US has to pay 22 percent of the annual budget of the UN agency, China pays 12 percent, Japan 8 percent and India 0.83 percent while the European Union pays 30 percent and so on. The US is a regular defaulter in WHO as they are to the UN secretariat. Of the total budget of $489 million of WHO for the year 2020, the assessed contribution of US is $ 115 million, China $ 57 million, India $ 4 million. For the year 2019 the US paid only one third of its assessed contribution for the year, both the dollar part and the swiss franc part. When a member country fails to pay dues equivalent to the full contributions for the preceding two years that country loses the voting right in the organisation as the Article 19 of the UN Charter stipulates. The voluntary assessed contributions are not covered by this provision though.

The US efforts to financially hurt the UN system is not new. They have been consistently refusing to pay the dues to the UN secretariat on flimsy grounds. The US payment of dues to the UN is default by $381 million for the year 2018, and for 2019 it is even greater, while most of the low income countries have been duly paying the statutory contribution. It is not only WHO that the US is targeting, they are currently not a member of Unesco. Trump took US out of Unesco in December 2018 following the Unesco General Conference decision by overwhelming majority to admit the State of Palestine as a member. And this was not the first time the US quitting Unesco. They quit Unesco in 1984, against another eminent African, Dr Mahtar M’Bbow of Senegal who has been heading the organisation then, and returned in 2003 when they realised that the US boycott could not cause any dent to the organisation.

The US boycott of Unesco hurt the US in multiple ways while Unesco had one of its most creative periods, without the intimidating voice of the US in the meeting halls of Unesco.

  • If the US would leave WHO following its refusal to pay the membership dues, WHO too would be a better place.
  • While US’ assessed contribution is 22 per cent, over 35 percent of the WHO expenditure ends up in the US.
  • About 18 per cent of the WHO staff is from the US, close to 32 percent of the WHO procurements of medicines, equipment and services are from the US, meaning that the US takes back much more than it gives to WHO.

And without the US the proceedings of the decision making bodies of WHO will be a smooth and creative affair as they always attempt to bring down the strength of almost every decision to the weakest in terms of public interest, exploiting the concern for consensus in decision making. In any case the US is outside many of the global democratic multilateral initiatives- the Convention on Biological Diversity and its protocols, Kyoto Protocol, Paris Agreement, International Criminal Court, Basel Convention, etc. The US attack on WHO is in keeping with its political convention but the world needs to take serious note of though we need not worry about its possible departure from WHO.

International investigation warranted 

The US government, through its President and Secretary of State, alleged that the virus[1] responsible for COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China, ruling out its zoonotic origin and asked for an international investigation, and the US media have been repeating the charge. A Chinese diplomat had alleged that the virus had its origin in the US as implied by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in a statement of its director and that it reached China from there. It is important for these allegations to be investigated and the actual source of origin of SARS-CoV-2 is determine.

It is equally important that the longer standing demand for investigating the origin of the AIDS causing HIV virus is also undertaken along with it.

Regardless of the US and Chinese claims on the origin of the SARS-CoV-2, an early research paper on the genomic characterisation of the virus published in  Lancet by a research team of 35 Chinese scientists and an Australian scientist has found that the new virus is closely related (88% genomic identity) to the SARS-like coronavirus obtained from bats. This paper was published on 29 January 2020. A US NIH funded study by a US team published in the Journal of Virology on the same date also suggests a viral phylogeny relating to SARS-CoV of bat origin, it also recognises a diversity of animals- except mice and rat- as possible hosts. Another paper, by a team of 29 Chinese scientists, first published on the website on 23 January and subsequently published in Nature on 3 February found the SARS-CoV-2 96 percent identical to bat coronavirus at the genome level. However, one may question these studies and provide fresh scientific data and interpretation, hence it is important to have an international investigation to settle the issue. (Incidentally these publications also point to the level of scientific information about the virus available in public domain from the start).

Similarly, the US synthesis of HIV was alleged by South African President Tabo Mbeki when he was in office. This allegation was later repeated by the late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai while she was holding the office of Assistant Minister of Environment, though she had to retract the statement following US protest. In 1990 two German molecular biologists, Dr J Segal and Dr L Segal published a two part article in the magazine Top Secret ( autumn issue, Bonn) in which they argued that the HTLV III (as the HIV was also called so then) was developed through genetic manipulation in a P5 secret laboratory  of the Pentagon at Fort Detrick, US in 1977. This they say was done under the leadership of the eminent molecular biologist Dr RC Gallo, who was director of NIH, and now heads the Institute of Human Virology at Baltimore as well the Global Viral Network. The article claims to present evidence from the papers of Dr Gallo, the French molecular biologist Dr Montagnier- who was awarded Nobel prize for reporting the structure of HIV- and others and provides the trajectory of the research developments. An anonymous US scientist published a detailed letter in the New Delhi newspaper Patriot on 17 July 1984 forewarning about an impending spread of AIDS in South Asia, as part of a US design.

This argument has however been written off as a USSR conspiracy. But like the truth about SARS-CoV-2, it is important to clear the air about the origin of HIV. Therefore an international committee of independent experts, facilitated by WHO, may be established to investigate the truth about these twin issues, so that the conspiracy theories can be laid to rest.

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Author`s name S. Faizi