US’s WHO Withdrawal: Can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The US has formally started the process of withdrawing from the WHO after President Donald Trump accused the global health body of botching up the response to Covid-19. The withdrawal would deprive the WHO of its largest source of funding as the US is the single biggest donor to the Geneva-based body, contributing more than $400 million in 2019. But the withdrawal will only come into effect in July next year as per rules set when the WHO was founded in 1948. Till then the US must meet its remaining assessed financial obligations.

The US withdrawing from the WHO at this juncture is ludicrous. The world is in the middle of a pandemic and we need more global health cooperation than ever before. And frankly, there is no other alternative to the WHO at this point. True, the WHO has mucked up in its Covid-19 response. It was too obliging of China in the beginning of the pandemic, was wrongly lukewarm towards Taiwan’s warnings about the spread of Covid-19, and indulged in several flip-flops over guidelines such as wearing masks to control the spread of the disease. In fact, the US withdrawal notice comes just as the WHO has done another about-turn on the airborne transmission of the virus saying that emerging evidence suggests this is indeed possible.

But irrespective of its shortcomings in recent months, the WHO has over decades provided valuable service in coordinating global health objectives and providing critical health suggestions to countries in specific cases. The vast majority of countries still rely on the organisation to provide critical inputs to formulate their health policies. The WHO was pivotal in helping eradicate small pox and has significantly contributed towards the near defeat of polio. Sure, it is far from perfect. But those imperfections stem from the structure of the WHO which reflects the membership of the state parties. There is definitely a case now to give WHO more teeth. The body’s health recommendations to members ought to be binding, compliance mandatory, and failure to act inviting punitive measures. But these structural changes have to be decided by the members themselves. And being a specialised UN agency, WHO, unfortunately, gets pulled into UN politics. This is precisely why Taiwan can’t participate in the World Health Assembly – the decision-making body of the WHO – due to China’s objection.

But defunding the WHO would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Plus, withdrawing from the organisation does nothing for US healthcare or strategic objectives. It is just a stunt by Trump to deflect blame from his own failings to control Covid in America. And should Trump’s opponent in the November presidential election, Joe Biden, win he is certain to stop the withdrawal. Let’s hope that outcome comes true or better sense prevails in the current Washington regime.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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