America’s Withdrawal from the World Health Organization: What Happens Next

It all began with a Trump rant against China as he found himself under pressure for having misjudged the severity of the virus threat and mismanaged the U.S. response. In a typical kneejerk reaction, Trump looked for a scapegoat and found the World Health Organization. WHO suddenly stood accused of having mismanaged the response to COVID-19 and falling in the hands of China. American funding was immediately withheld and a call made to investigate WHO’s role. Now, without waiting for the results of the investigation, Trump has announced his administration was moving to formally America’s withdrawal from WHO – which will become effective next year, July 6, 2021, to be precise. 

To be noted: Withdrawal from the WHO (or any UN agency for that matter) is not an easy matter. The spokesperson for Secretary-General António Guterres said he had received the notice and “is in the process of verifying with the World Health Organization whether all the conditions for such withdrawal are met.” Those conditions “include giving a one-year notice and fully meeting the payment of assessed financial obligations.”  

Hence the July 6 date for withdrawal. Whether the U.S. will fully meet the payment of assessed obligations is, given Trump’s frame of mind, open to question.

This is the first time the U.S. withdraws from WHO but not the first time it withdraws from a UN technical agency. It has done so twice with UNESCO, the social and cultural UN agency regularly accused of Marxist tendencies and playing too much to the developing world’s concerns, and lately, to China in particular. 

More importantly, Trump has notoriously declared his antipathy to defending the planet from climate change and environmental degradation. He has withdrawn America from the Paris Climate Agreement – and that too will become effective in 2021.

The next agency likely to be targeted for withdrawal by the Trump administration is, of course, the World Trade Organization that the U.S. has already considerably hobbled, by refusing to replace key personnel in a major function of the organization.

So, assuming withdrawal is possible with the time framework indicated by the Trump administration, what happens next? One is entitled to wonder whether this the beginning of the end of the American presence on the international scene.  Whether this is a prelude to actual withdrawal from the United Nations that the U.S. helped to found coming out of World War II. 

In short, are we seeing a fall from America First to America Last and finally America Out?

America’s Reaction to Trump’s Announcement

The Democrats’ condemnation was wide-ranging and immediate. Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tweeted the news Tuesday. “Congress received notification that POTUS officially withdrew the U.S. from the ⁦‪@WHO ⁩in the midst of a pandemic. 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,” he wrote. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “is an act of true senselessness.”

Joe Biden, the presidential candidate, announced he would ensure that America rejoins the WHO on his first day in office:

But – and this is remarkable –  the condemnation is not a partisan position and it goes beyond the Democrats.  

Notably, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, voiced his disagreement with Trump’s decision. “If the administration has specific recommendations for reforms of the WHO, it should submit those recommendations to Congress, and we can work together to make those happen,” he said.

As reported by CNN, last month, despite alleging that the World Health Organization “enabled” the Chinese government’s cover-up of the coronavirus pandemic’s origins, members of the GOP China task force urged Trump to reconsider his decision to terminate relations with the international body, arguing that the US can do more to affect change as a member of the WHO rather than from the outside.

The move was also condemned by the heads of the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians and American College of Physicians saying in a statement that it “puts the health of our country at grave risk.”  

Cousens, the head of the UN Foundation, told CNN that there’s “no question but that working within an institution like the World Health Organization allows the United States and others to leverage their resources to have much greater impact.” She called the decision “short-sighted, unnecessary, and unequivocally dangerous,” noting that the U.S.’ “ability to lead and shape an agenda for reform is drastically diminished when they step out of the field of play.”

The International Reaction to America’s Withdrawal from WHO

The international condemnation was equally strong. The head of WHO, Dr. Tedros, was adamant (on Twitter) that the proper answer to Trump could be summarized in one word: Together. 

Indeed, collaboration is key. And WHO, should Trump get re-elected in November, would need to find other sources of financing to replace the U.S. Most likely the EU and its member states could step in. 

US allies have been quick to rally to the support of the WHO, with a top diplomat from Germany calling for global solidarity and Italy’s Health Minister criticizing Trump’s decision as “serious and wrong”.

Also the U.K., Brexit notwithstanding, Dr. Tedros just reported he had a very good talk with the British Prime Minister Johnson:

In the international aid community, Amnesty International was among the first to react, publishing an article on its website that immediately resonated worldwide since it has a wide readership both abroad and within the United States. Sanhita Ambast, Amnesty International’s Advisor on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said:

“This decision will have negative impacts on efforts to control the pandemic in countries all around the world, and also for the other essential health care programs that WHO supports. Only if the international community works together can we bring this virus under control and ensure that everyone can access adequate health care.”

It is an incontrovertible fact that WHO remains the primary international body with a mandate to support global public health. In addition to playing a key role in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, coordinating efforts to get personal safety and medical equipment, like ventilators, to hospitals around the world, it implements numerous programs to prevent, control, and treat Ebola, measles, malaria, HIV and AIDS, and many other diseases. 

Indeed. As I write, the U.S. has passed the mark of 3 million infected citizens and over 130,000 deaths, far more than in any other country. It hardly seems like the right time to move out of WHO and withdraw from international collaboration. 

To conclude: WHO has just announced that it is in fact moving to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, as demanded by America. WHO scientists and experts are scheduled to travel to China this weekend to investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus, Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programs explained that the experts would seek to trace the narrative of how the coronavirus might have spread from the wild to possibly farm animals to humans. 

Trump’s decision seems extraordinarily out of step with reality.

Featured Image: Trump announcing he is cutting ties with the World Health Organization Source: Reuters


About the Author /

Claude Forthomme is a writer and an economist. A graduate of Columbia University, Claude held a variety of jobs before starting a 25-year career at the United Nations (Food and Agriculture), ending as Regional Representative for Europe and Central Asia. She authored many fiction books under various pen names in both English and Italian; she is considered a prime exponent of Boomer literature and has founded the Boomer Lit Group on Goodreads. Her poetry has been included in "Freeze Frame", an international poetry anthology curated by British poet Oscar Sparrow (Gallo Romano Media, 2012).

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