The World Health Organization is far from perfect, as is President Donald Trump. Both made the mistake of assuming China was being transparent after the coronavirus outbreak was first discovered there in late December. In retrospect, it’s clear China exerted considerable efforts to downplay its infection numbers as the disease exploded across the city of Wuhan and ultimately became a pandemic that shut down the global economy.
On Tuesday, Trump announced he would suspend more than half a billion dollars in U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization while the administration reviews how the organization addressed the pandemic. He excoriated the WHO for allowing itself to be fooled, accusing it of “severely mismanaging” the response and “covering up” the extent of China’s infection rates. The organization “willingly took China’s assurances at face value” and was complicit in spreading Beijing’s “misinformation,” Trump stated in Tuesday’s White House coronavirus briefing.
“So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” he said.
Trump has used those daily briefings to rewrite history and erase his own mistakes in the early days of the crisis. In addition to downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak, minimizing the threat to Americans, playing golf, traveling and holding campaign rallies, Trump took time to spread his own misinformation by praising China’s response. He tweeted on Jan. 24: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”
Rarely has Trump’s double standard been so starkly on display in a single setting. When reporters tried Tuesday to read his own quotes back to him praising President Xi Jinping’s containment efforts, Trump either changed the subject or told reporters to be quiet — in much the same way China’s dictatorship did when journalists tried to document the effects the virus was having on that communist country. It seems authoritarian leaders think alike in the priority of saving face over saving lives.
So why is Trump punishing the World Health Organization? He says the WHO failed to send teams of epidemiologists to China after the outbreak was first reported. He neglected to note that the organization tried but was summarily rebuffed by China, a sovereign nation that has no obligation to allow outside scientists in. How could they make an accurate assessment without having access to the outbreak zone?
U.S. government epidemiologists shared the views expressed by international organizations like the WHO that travel bans, such as the limited one Trump imposed on Jan. 31 against travel from China by non-U.S. citizens, would be ineffective in halting the coronavirus once it had already begun spreading on U.S. shores. Trump bristled at the criticism that he waited too long. But the simple fact is, he did.
And now it’s the WHO that must pay the price so the mercurial U.S. leader, who claims to hold “total authority,” can save face and deflect blame.