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What’s behind Trump’s criticism of the World Health Organization

President Trump said Tuesday he will cut U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, accusing the body of being too trusting of China’s early assertions that it had the novel coronavirus under control. But critics of the move say that WHO is playing an integral role amid the pandemic -- and that no other organization is poised to take its place. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump said yesterday he would cut U.S. funding for the World Health Organization. He accused the body of being too trusting of China's assertions that it had the virus under control.

    Our Nick Schifrin joins me to discuss the dispute and the underlying facts.

    So, hello, Nick.

    What the president said is that he will freeze all funding to the World Health Organization. What exactly would that look like?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, I talked to senior administration officials about this, and they say that freeze is a 60-to-90-day freeze.

    And the way it works, Judy, is that the U.S. which is the largest contributor to the WHO, doesn't cut a single check, so there are different WHO programs that get funded at different times. So anything earmarked to the WHO over the next two to three months simply wouldn't get paid.

    Now, here's the question. Officials are considering whether to take that money and send it to another organization or send it directly to countries, instead of to the WHO. Or they're going to freeze it and hold it, trying to use it as leverage, and that's what they say they're after.

    They're trying to get leverage to reform the World Health Organization.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so what kind of reforms are they looking for?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, the short-term goal is very clear. They want Taiwan to be an observer at the WHO again. It was in the past. China has resisted giving it back that status.

    And U.S. officials tell me they believe the director general of the WHO can simply do that and decide that himself.

    A second goal is to somehow force countries to share information about outbreaks. Now, right now, they are required to share information to the WHO. The U.S. officials say there's simply no enforcement mechanism in order to do that.

    And the third goal is to kind of reorient the priorities of the World Health Organization. WHO does a lot of things. It worries about polio. It does road safety. It worries about local health emergencies.

    But the U.S. wants it to focus almost exclusively on infectious disease.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the WHO spoken in its own defense today. What are they saying?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes.

    The World Health Organization has said that it has to work with China, and it has to work within the confines of those regulations that require more self-reporting.

    So, let's take a listen to Michael Ryan. He's the director — executive director of the WHO's emergency program.

  • Michael Ryan:

    The international health regulations is a framework negotiated by 194 countries. We simply implement that framework on behalf of our member states.

    What we need in WHO, like so many workers around the world, is the space, the support and the solidarity to do our jobs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, of course, Judy, the administration today has been criticized for reducing that support and solidarity in a time of pandemic and because, in order to enact those reforms, it's going to need the support of the other members of the World Health Organization, other countries around the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what sort of criticism, Nick, directed at the U.S.?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the criticism is everywhere.

    You saw Bill Gates, whose foundation is a major funder of the WHO, say that cutting the WHO would be a bad choice, and — quote — "The WHO is slowing the spread of COVID-19. And if that work is stopped, no organization can replace them. The world needs WHO now, more than ever."

    And Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said: "The president is ignoring global health experts, disregarding science and undermining the heroes fighting on the front line."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So that's praise, but that is in contrast to the administration criticizing the WHO for many months.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, it's not only been the administration, but a lot of critics around the world have said simply that the WHO is too swayed by China.

    And let me take you back to about New Year's. This is the time when local doctors in Wuhan, China, were telling hospital administrators that, hey, this is something new, and there is human-to-human transmission because we're getting sick, but the hospitals and the local government covered that up, or at the very least silenced those local doctors.

    So, on December 31, the Wuhan government released a statement: "The investigation so far has found no obvious person-to-person transmission, and no medical personnel have been infected."

    And the WHO basically parroted that language. January 5: "Based on the preliminary information from the Chinese investigation team, no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission, and no health care worker infections have been reported."

    Officials who are talking to me say that the WHO should have known better and shouldn't have accepted Chinese language.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Nick, weren't the Trump administration and the WHO praising China's response back in — back in January?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, that's a great point. And this is really key.

    So let's take a listen to the director general of WHO talking in January, the day after the WHO declared this a global emergency, but also President Trump praising China.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    WHO continues to have confidence in China's capacity to control the outbreak.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I spoke with President Xi. We had a great talk. He's working very hard. I have to say, he's working very, very hard. And if you can count on the reports coming out of China, that spread has gone down quite a bit.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Judy, obviously, the president's language about China has changed, and the U.S. really does want to reform WHO, but they need international support to do so.

    And it's not clear that they have that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin, thank you so much. All this background is incredibly important.

    Thank you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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