Michael Head is an incoming third year History and International Relations student at King’s College London.
Speaking to an increasingly beleaguered press corps and nation, U.S. President Donald Trump announced April 14th that his Administration would cease—with immediate effect—funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) because Trump accuses the WHO of “severely mismanaging” the coronavirus outbreak and “covering up” the full extent of the virus’ spread in China earlier this year.1For “failing in its basic duty,” Trump said a sixty to a ninety-day review of the WHO’s response is required before any amendments to this funding policy can be made.2 As the UN’s international health arm, the WHO is the only agency focused solely on global public health. The US is the agency’s largest contributor, providing roughly 15% of its funds.3Shortly after Trump’s decision, new global figures revealed almost two million confirmed cases of COVID-19. In America, the death toll has now eclipsed 65,000.4
In reality, however, Trump’s decision should come as no shock. When other states were committing themselves to the achievement of net-zero emissions, the US disentangled itself from the Paris Peace Climate Agreement. When the P5+1 and European Union stood by the non-proliferation commitments of the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Deal, Trump dramatically tore up the commitments. It’s a decision which fits in neatly with Trump’s broader rejection of burden-sharing. Though the WHO may suffer a short-term financial deficit due to Trump’s erraticism, America will only serve to compound its longstanding leadership deficit in the eyes of the international community.
Indeed, international criticism followed instantaneously. Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, reinforced the need for global funding in waging the war against COVID-19. German Foreign Minister, Heiko Mass, tweeted succinctly: “It doesn’t help to blame. The virus knows no borders.” Unsurprisingly, the most stinging retort came from the medical establishment itself. Richard Horton, editor of the weekly international medical publication, TheLancet, labelled Trump’s decision “a crime against humanity.”
Trump’s latest actions are a testament to the limitations of his leadership. In highlighting the WHO’s mismanagement, he naturally belies his Administration’s chaotic and misguided approach to the pandemic. His claims are not borne out by the evidence—evidence which suggests America’s response has been marred by executive untruths and smears.5Much of his critique of the WHO is based on a 14thJanuary tweet which stated preliminaryinvestigations of the outbreak in Wuhan found no conclusive evidence of human-to-human transmission.6Nine days later, after further data collection, this conclusion was reversed; a global emergency was announced. The very next day, Donald Trump took to Twitter to commend China’s efforts in containing the spread of the virus, praising “their efforts and transparency.” By the end of the month, US borders were resolutely closed to Chinese nationals and foreign nationals who had recently visited China.7
This approach was reiterated in Trump’s April 14th statement, with the President boldly stating, “border control is fundamental to virus control.” Trump’s claim that the WHO has acted in a China-centric manner and failed to update the international community in a timely manner is therefore contradicted – perhaps unsurprisingly – by his own trigger-happy tweeting and actions during the early phase of the coronavirus outbreak. There was a clear acknowledgement of COVID-19’s pandemic potential. This latest decision is an attempt to conceal the Administration’s woeful preparation between late January and mid-March with regards to testing, lockdown restrictions, and protecting the vulnerable and frontline workers.8A week after this unprecedented action, governors—hundreds of them according to Trump’s latest miscount—are now divided on whether to open up their state’s economy or prioritise its public health, which is symptomatic of the Oval Office’s disorganised approach to the crisis.
In light of recent action, the WHO will need to adapt to plug its funding deficit, and the US will need to quickly flatten its own curve to justify its flagrant rejection of global cooperation. As it currently stands, the leadership this requires is lacking. Ultimately, this taps into a long-developing trend and historic parallel. The liberal internationalism propagated over a century ago in the wake of the Great War served as a precursor to the “Roaring Twenties,” a period of booming prosperity and the emergence of a broad counterculture within America. The American rejection of such liberal, cooperative principles in 2020 coincides with an emerging popular culture which emphasises the bizarre and shocking and an economy which appears to be heading towards a recession paralleled by the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. The big cats of Netflix’s Tiger King, placed alongside the Trump Administration’s erratic performance thus far, suggests the American Circus is open for business as usual, much to the detriment of global health.
1. “Coronavirus: Trump’s WHO de-funding ‘as dangerous as it sounds,’” BBC News, 15th April 2020.
4. Coronavirus tracked: the latest figures as the pandemic spreads, Financial Times.
5. “How Trump changed his tune on coronavirus again and again … and again,” The Guardian, 18th March 2020.
6. “WHO haunted by old tweet saying China found no human transmission of coronavirus,” New York Post, 20th March 2020.
7. “Trump Defends Closing Borders to Travelers to Fight Coronavirus,” The New York Times, 2nd February 2020:
8. “Trump turns against WHO to mask his own stark failings on Covid-19 crisis,” The Guardian, 15th April 2020.