On March 23, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared that “today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives… The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.” It is not surprising to hear such responsible sentiments from Guterres, as he is compassionate and civilised, but it is also not surprising that his encouragement to fight Covid-19 rather than engage in warfare has not been heeded by the leader of the world’s greatest democracy.
Guterres stands for everything Trump dislikes in the world, and his past ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, summed up his policy by stating that Washington would be “defunding those [UN] things that are not helpful to us,” including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. As president-elect, Trump tweeted that the UN “is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”
There is no mistaking the hostility of the Washington administration to the UN in its entirety, and in particular its malevolent antagonism concerning the World Health Organisation (WHO) whose “primary role is to direct and coordinate international health within the UN system. Our main areas of work are health systems; health through the life-course; non-communicable and communicable diseases; preparedness, surveillance and response…”
In its 70 years of existence the WHO has helped to achieve near-miracles of health care, including leading the world in eradication of smallpox. Were it not for the actions of some deranged Muslim extremists it would have had similar success in ridding the world of polio which continues to incapacitate and kill people in Afghanistan and Pakistan where, although numbers of cases are now very small, the religious loonies have managed to spread their evil anti-vaccination propaganda more effectively than the disease itself can propagate. Nevertheless the WHO, along with UN Children’s Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, very notably, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been most effective in the anti-polio campaign, which has itself been part of UN policy, as enunciated by Secretary General Guterres, that “there is no other way to deal with global challenges, than with global responses.”
But Donald Trump rejects “global responses” and wants to isolate and even destroy the World Health Organisation. On May 18, in an all-too-familiar fit of petulant malevolence he attacked and insulted the WHO. He claimed amongst other things that the WHO delayed declaring a Covid-19 emergency under pressure from President Xi Jinping, and also without evidence alleged that the WHO “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal.”
The UK’s Lancet is one of the world’s most credible and admired journals, and it is amazing that its Editor, Richard Horton, was forced to flatly contradict the President of the United States by stating “Dear President Trump — You cite The Lancet in your attack on WHO. Please let me correct the record. The Lancet did not publish any report in early December, 2019, about a virus spreading in Wuhan. The first reports we published were from Chinese scientists on Jan 24, 2020.”
In a letter the Lancet stated “The allegations levelled against WHO in President Trump’s letter are serious and damaging to efforts to strengthen international cooperation to control this pandemic. It is essential that any review of the global response is based on a factually accurate account of what took place in December and January.” In other words, a completely independent agency made it clear that President Donald Trump is a liar. But he failed to withdraw any of the manifestly incorrect accusations in his ranting diatribe, and there was no amendment to his threat that “If the WHO does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days [i.e., by June 18], I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the WHO permanent and reconsider our membership.”
The WHO is not perfect. Like many UN organisations that do so much good work (which is generally unreported), it has its faults, not the least being a number of officials who are there for the money and couldn’t care less about the humanitarian mission that is their responsibility. There are very few of them, but they are certainly there, and they weaken the standing of the organisation. But the world in general approves of the WHO and at no time has this been so apparent as at the 73rd World Health Assembly on 18-19 May which was, as one commentator put it, “a quiet victory for the European Union and China, and an undiluted triumph for the director general of the WHO, Tedros Ghabreyesus.”
The U.S. position was that “We saw that WHO failed at its core mission of information sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith” but this was patently nonsense, as made clear by the speeches of such as Chancellor Merkel (“virtually no country has been spared by this pandemic so no country can solve this problem alone. We must work together”) and President Macron (“Only if we join forces will we beat this COVID-19 pandemic. We need a strong WHO — and WHO is us Member States”). The atmosphere of the gathering was positive and echoed the statement by Secretary General Guterres that the world’s nations must “focus together on the true fight of our lives” in taking on the pandemic.
Every nation but the United States is cooperating with the WHO in the fight against the virus, but Trump and his minions are determined to divide the world in their floundering attempts to blame everyone but themselves for the catastrophe facing their country.
Apart from the crassness of the menacing ultimatum concerning U.S. association with the WHO, there is the matter of lack of precision. Trump did not make public the nature of the “major substantive improvements” he demanded, and yet again demonstrated his instability and complete lack of consistency by announcing only ten days — not thirty days — later that “We will today be terminating our relationship” with the WHO.
As Reuters noted, “Trump has long scorned multilateralism as he focuses on an ‘America First’ agenda. Since taking office, he has quit the U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.N. cultural agency, a global accord to tackle climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. He has also cut funding for the U.N. population fund and the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees.”
The world cannot continue to accept that the president of such a militarily powerful and economically influential nation can behave in such a tempestuous manner. Trump’s fury is illustrating the folly of war, and it is up to the rest of the world to stick together to combat the pandemic. As staggering violence erupted across his country in protests against the murder of a black man by a white policeman (don’t be a black in America), and the deaths from Covid-19 reached the most for a week, the President of the United States gave a speech in the White House Rose Garden and instead of presenting his policy concerning these national crises, he waged war on the United Nations. This is folly, indeed.