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Wednesday, April 15, 2020
Will Defunding WHO Backfire On Trump?
President Trump’s move to cut funding to the World Health Organization is a popular move among his supporters. The decision appeals to Republicans on multiple levels from attacking a global organization to punishing China to cutting (unpopular) spending. However, I’m skeptical that the move will help Trump politically with unaffiliated and moderate voters.
The issue is not that the WHO didn’t drop the ball with respect to the early days of the Coronavirus outbreak in China. The issue is what to do about it.
Global organizations like the United Nations, of which the WHO is a part, are more popular among Americans at large than they are among Republicans. A Pew poll from last year showed that Americans viewed the UN favorably by a 59-33 margin while Gallup found that Republicans were about half as likely as Democrats to approve of the body.
That isn’t to say that most Americans view the organization unrealistically. Gallup found that 66 percent of Americans viewed the UN as “necessary” even though only 44 percent thought the group did a good job.
Differing views of the UN are compounded by differing views of the pandemic. More polling from Pew shows that Republicans are more likely to see the Coronavirus pandemic as an economic threat than a health crisis. Only about half of Republicans believe that COVID-19 threatens the “health of the US population as a whole.”
Out-of-step Republican opinions on the two issues set up a schism between Trump and the Republicans and the rest of the country similar to 2018’s rift over separating illegal immigrant children from their parents. Republicans are certain of their correctness on the issue but probably won’t be able to bring the rest of the country on board.
Condemnation for Trump’s move was swift. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the prominent medical journal, The Lancet, tweeted an attack on the president calling the funding cut “a crime against humanity.”
Philanthropist Bill Gates tweeted that the cut was “as dangerous as it sounds.”
While there is evidence that WHO bungled the early response to the Coronavirus and placed too much trust in China’s information, it is also true that the agency is leading the fight against COVID-19 in many countries around the world. At best, Trump’s decision will do nothing to help end the pandemic and save lives. At worst, it will lengthen the crisis, cost more lives, and delay a vaccine.
Per NPR, donations from member states make up 51 percent of WHO’s $2.4 billion annual budget. The US is the largest contributor, funding about 20 percent of the budget, which includes $656 million for specific programs. The US is already behind on its commitment, owing $198.3 million.
It isn’t clear how much funding will be cut, but Mr. Trump said that the initial suspension of funds would be for 60 to 90 days while a review of the WHO’s performance was conducted. It also clear whether the president has the authority to cut off funding. As we learned during the Ukraine scandal, money appropriated by Congress is legally required to be spent unless specific conditions are met.
Politico also pointed out that Trump’s move contradicts the US pandemic preparedness plan. Drafted by the Trump Administration in 2017, the plan calls for “expanded international coordination on pandemic preparedness and “continued support” for WHO.
A better solution would be to continue funding WHO in the near-term while investigating the agency’s actions and relationship with China. The US could use the threat of funding cuts to press for reform, but this would be done more appropriately after the current crisis has passed.
It is too early for polling on whether the public approves of Trump’s move, but defunding the WHO during a pandemic is politically risky, especially for a president who is already facing criticism for his slow response to the pandemic. If the public sees the move as playing politics with lives and prolonging the pandemic, it could end Trump’s re-election hopes. For that reason, I would not be surprised if the Administration finds a way to way back what may have been a spontaneous move by the president.