America should be demanding answers, not retreating.
Originally published in the New York Times on May 29, 2020.
President Trump’s recent decision to terminate America’s role in the World Health Organization will have devastating effects on global health, and it will benefit the Chinese Communist Party. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the C.C.P. has pursued an aggressive messaging and disinformation campaign with twin goals: to restore its own image after a botched response to the pandemic and to sow discord among European nations about American commitment abroad. Moreover, leaving the W.H.O. sends the message that the world cannot count on the United States.
During this pandemic, the leaders of the W.H.O. have made questionable decisions, especially toward the C.C.P., but the organization still serves a critical role in striving to keep our world healthy. We can disagree with the leadership of an organization while supporting their mission. International coalitions are essential to fighting global challenges; we should be strengthening our alliances, not dismantling them.
The W.H.O. has helped with the eradication of diseases like smallpox and addresses threats to human life like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Without American leadership at the W.H.O., it will be more difficult to coordinate efforts to prevent the spread of diseases and illnesses across the globe. We must fix the organization so that it can continue its work.
Viruses do not respect borders and because of China’s slow reaction to Covid-19, it spread. The W.H.O. repeatedly stood by as the Chinese government made several damaging decisions. The C.C.P. hid the virus from the rest of the world for over a month; prevented virus samples from reaching researchers; detained doctors in China who tried to slow the spread of the virus; and has used blatant racism against African nationals in China.
Throughout this pandemic, the C.C.P. has allowed its individual, self-centered view of the world to dictate its every action — while the rest of the world grapples with the related economic crisis. The Chinese government deliberately sought to limit access to samples of the virus. It falsified information about the total number of cases. And it spread misinformation globally that harmed others to improve its own image.
These concerns are shared by our allies. I know this because in an attempt to gain clarity on the W.H.O.’s role in these issues, I wrote letters to every country with which the U.S. has diplomatic relations, asking fellow member nations to seek responses from W.H.O. leadership to several important questions that have yet to be answered. I had hoped that answers to these basic questions could restore the trust that was lost in the W.H.O. leadership in the early stages of the pandemic.
Some of my questions were: Why did the W.H.O.’s leadership fail to acknowledge that the Chinese government has refused repeated W.H.O. requests, as early as February of this year, to have access to viral samples, clinical specimens and other pertinent information? Was the W.H.O. pressured by the Chinese government to delay declaring Covid-19 a pandemic? Why did W.HO.’s leadership not publicly acknowledge that the Chinese government is censoring its own research of Covid-19, silencing medical researchers and doctors?
Responses have come from all corners of the globe — from Hungary to East Timor to Thailand, with many echoing our concerns. Some countries, like Australia, said they share concerns across three key areas: the timing in declaring the Public Health Emergency of International Concern; the W.H.O.’s criticism of countries, such as the U.S. and Australia, that adopted early travel restrictions; and the need for the W.H.O. (and other relevant United Nations agencies) to take stronger stances on regulating wildlife wet markets across the globe. Overall, ambassadors have made it clear their nations agree with us and are concerned. We have yet to hear from any country that denies these issues outrightly.
It’s possible that the W.H.O. has been pressuring the Chinese party for months to provide virus samples to the rest of the world. But we don’t know that, and so it looks like an organization we fund, support and need has been failing us.
By no means is the W.H.O. involved in all of China’s bad deeds during this crisis, but I do believe it needs to come clean on its decisions that seem to align with the goals of Chinese leadership. We should be countering China’s rise and holding it accountable — not funding the C.C.P.’s goals. Other countries share these concerns.
The United States, as a member organization of the W.H.O., has paid the organization more than $400 million in mandatory dues this year and we deserve answers. Our allies also want answers and to get them we need to show global leadership and work with like-minded nations, not take our ball and go home.
This pandemic has caused damage globally but the world will recover. Contained in my correspondence with foreign leaders, there’s international unity behind holding the W.H.O. accountable and improving it so that it’s more effective in the next major public health crisis. President Trump should take this into account and change his position on America’s role in the W.H.O.