On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On March 11, 2020, they declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic. One month later, on April 14th, President Donald Trump announced a 60-day suspension of funding to the WHO. Trump said he wants his administration to review the organization’s oversight of the coronavirus, given his belief that the WHO is beholden to China, and that it is mismanaging the pandemic response. Yet before the review period was even half completed, on May 18th, Trump sent the WHO Director General a letter threatening to not only permanently end WHO funding, but to pull out of the organization all together.
Since 1946, the WHO has been responsible for providing global guidance and technical assistance to countries on preserving and improving health, and strengthening their health systems. WHO coordinates implementation of the International Health Regulations, an agreement reached by 196 countries—including the United States—to work together for global health security and to respond to epidemics. This role is vital during health emergencies.
The United States contributes approximately 16% of the agency’s total budget. The potential loss of this funding, during an unprecedented pandemic, will create a vacuum in global monitoring and response, and will hasten and increase the number of preventable deaths from the virus and other causes. As of this writing there were over 320,000 deaths worldwide; the United States accounts for over 90,000 of those deaths.
The current US government review of the WHO is the latest effort by the Trump Administration to undermine multilateral bodies and agreements. President Trump has repeatedly attempted to rollback global commitments on sexual and reproductive health and rights, taking particular aim at the United Nations, WHO, UN agencies, and other global entities. Since 2017, the US has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO; and it has defunded UNFPA and reduced funding for the Organization of American States.
The US government review of WHO is not a serious effort to address the challenges the organization faces. The Trump Administration has been signaling its intent to defund the World Health Organization for several years. The pandemic provides a flimsy cover for doing so. In advance of the release of its investigation, there is reason to question the government’s findings.
President Trump said that during the suspension, money designated to the WHO will be redirected to NGOs. This raises significant concern for both the public health and human rights communities. While NGOs can play a key role in delivering medical services, they cannot substitute for multilateral entities like WHO in coordinating a global health response during a pandemic. There is further concern that some humanitarian NGOs named by the Trump Administration, particularly those with a religious mission, have used the cover of humanitarian work to proselytize, and some have troubling histories of anti-Muslim, anti-abortion, and anti-LGBTQ biases.
This factsheet provides information on the work and scope of the WHO. It also includes details on efforts by the Trump Administration to defund the agency prior to the coronavirus outbreak, with support from anti-rights activists and non- governmental organizations. Finally, we offer recommendations for Congress as we collectively anticipate a loss of funding that will have profound impacts on the world, and particularly on women and girls and marginalized communities.