US gives formal notice on withdrawal from WHO - critics say it leaves America 'sick and alone'

US President Donald Trump

The United States on Tuesday gave formal notice that it intends to withdraw from the World Health Organization as of  7 July 2021, following President Donald Trump’s announcement at the World Health Assembly on 18 May. Although some senior legal experts have said the move would still require Congressional approval, others have said the question remains “murky”.

“Congress received notification that POTUS officially withdrew the U.S. from the @WHO in the midst of a pandemic,” said US Senator Bob Menendez in a Tweet. “To call Trump’s response to COVID chaotic & incoherent doesn’t do it justice. This won’t protect American lives or interests—it leaves Americans sick & America alone.”

The move, taken just after US Covid-19 case counts rose to new heights over the Fourth of July weekend, was quickly denounced by leading American public health experts:

“The president of the United States does not represent the interests of the United States nor the world. He only represents his own personal and political interests. This appeases his base. That is all,” said Howard Forman, a professor of public health at Yale University.

Trump had said in May that he intended to withdraw from WHO due to its alleged “China-centric” bias in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its failure to recommend stiff measures, such as travel bans, in the early days of the virus spread.

But political analysts said that the real motive was to divert attention from the high rates of virus transmission in the United States, which has now become the epicentre of the pandemic.

Why is this important? The US move is not only a blow to the kind of global solidarity that the WHO and other world leaders have said is in fact necessary to beat the pandemic, but it also cuts off a major source of funding to the Geneva-based Organization. Paradoxically, a large portion of US support was directed to African emergency disease control activities, although in fact the Trump administration had already begun to close the tap earlier in 2020 - when pledged US contributions were only about half of those last year.

Some solutions. Meanwhile, Germany has stepped into fill the funding gap in at Geneva’s WHO headquarters, with an unprecedented 500 million Euro contribution this year. But that is only a partial solution - financially, not to mention with respect to global solidarity and morale. Hurting even more financially is WHO’s regional office in Washington DC, which operates as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), a legally separate entity. WHO insiders say that the US appears interested in playing a continued role in PAHO, which wields considerable influence in Latin America. But they fear that could be at the expense of some of PAHO’s political independence on issues such as the treatment of political rivals such as Cuba.

Concerns over PAHO’s financial crisis crested last week with a public call by a number of the organization’s senior technical advisors published in The Lancet, entitled Financial Crisis at PAHO in the Time of COVID-19: a Call for Action.

“Due to non-payment of Member States’ contributions, PAHO stands on the brink of insolvency…Health security in the western hemisphere would be severely threatened without a functioning PAHO. Reserve funds will be exhausted by September, 2020,” the authors stated.

Most of the deficit, they added, is attributable to the United States, which accounts for 67% of missed or late payments. But Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and others also have late payments totaling US $164.6 million. And wracked by their own Covid-19 epidemics, it is likely that the money will be slow in coming from those countries, as well - particularly in light of the US example.

This article was also published on Health Policy Watch