The World Health Organization (WHO) allocates just 30 cents per person to support global health. Even in the absence of a pandemic, those 30 cents are hardly enough to ensure positive outcomes for all people on the planet.
In the 72 years since the WHO’s establishment, no member state had ever threatened to withhold funding as retribution for the organization’s performance. Yet, at the height of a global pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump has announced his intention to halt funding to the WHO, effectively reducing its budget by 15 per cent.
Founded as part of the United Nations in 1948, the WHO is the world’s central institution for directing and coordinating international health responses. Serving a global population of more than 7.8 billion people, its 2020 annual budget is just $2.4 billion – a pittance given the WHO’s role in supporting health system infrastructures and safeguarding humanity against disease. In particular, countries with limited public health infrastructure rely heavily on their relationship with the WHO.
Amidst a global pandemic such as COVID-19, this resource shortage has had deadly global consequences.
By threatening to withhold funds, Trump has publicly undermined the legitimacy of the WHO and questioned its capacity to coordinate a global response to COVID-19, setting a dangerous precedent at a time when the need for a trusted international body to coordinate public health efforts has never been greater. Instead, his actions place financial and political interests ahead of human lives.
Public health programs that often prevent diseases before they occur are generally invisible. Consequently, their value is often misunderstood. However, public health officials and institutions are embedded at every level of society and work tirelessly year-round to support population health.
During this crisis, public health experts are communicating evidence-based guidelines on handwashing and physical distancing; advocating for the rights of migrant workers and farmers providing our food; mobilizing shelters to accommodate physically distanced homeless populations; collecting and analyzing COVID-19 data to build epidemiological models; urging for equitable mental health responses; and much more.
Decades of critical public health research have demonstrated that pervasive global public health threats – including draconian border controls, colonialism, racism, sexism, income disparity, the prison industrial complex, and criminalization of sex work and drug use – endanger broad sects of the world’s population at the expense of all people. The strict separations that figuratively and literally separate parts of humanity from each other become especially superficial in the context of a pandemic.
The WHO’s paltry budget partially explains its inadequate response to COVID-19. However, historical and on-going financial and political interests have also marred its response. Truly mediating the harms of the COVID-19 crisis entails a non-partisan recognition that all people’s basic needs must be met to ensure adequate safety for populations across the planet.
Trump’s vindictive authoritarianism fundamentally works against the interests of people who lack political and financial power. His response to COVID-19 is no exception. After stoking the flames of anti-Asian racism, touting the benefits of an understudied malaria drug, and continuing harsh sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba among others, Trump has shifted his hostilities toward the WHO – undermining its important role in international public health – to divert from his shortcomings.
This is not to say the WHO is not without fault. Over the past few decades, it has made questionable decisions and has had monumental failures.
During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the global health community panned the WHO for being slow to respond and failing to act decisively. The WHO admitted that poor coordination with partners, ineffective risk communication, constrained surge capacity and inadequate community outreach capacity were critical shortcomings in its response.
The crisis also illustrated a perennial challenge undercutting the WHO’s efforts – the tension between its normative role to facilitate unified actions and expectations of a robust operational role (despite not having the mandate or resources to deliver).
But it’s precisely these missteps that point not only to the problem but also the solution. As the world’s foremost health institution, the WHO’s budget needs to be robust, predictable, and free from political overtures and threats.
COVID-19 has shown us that threatening to cut the WHO’s budget is the opposite of what we should be doing. The threat of lessened funding highlights a significant challenge that has plagued the WHO for decades – financial and political interests must be deprioritized for this international entity to successfully foster positive health outcomes worldwide.
In this hour of need, one key solution should be to significantly ramp up investments in the WHO. Failure to do so will consign our collective humanity, particularly women and children in the global south, to unspeakable tragedy and unparalleled human suffering. The only cost worth questioning is that of human lives lost globally.