President Donald Trump's decision to halt US funding to the World Health Organisation has triggered heavy criticism at home and abroad for depriving the global body of its biggest donor as it battles the coronavirus pandemic.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell captured a chorus of international concern when he warned that all countries must work together closely to stem the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Deeply regret US decision to suspend funding to WHO,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever to help contain & mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.”
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed regret at Mr Trump's decision and said his organisation was assessing the impact and how to fill any funding gaps.
“This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat, a dangerous enemy,” he told reporters. “When we are divided the virus exploits the cracks between us.”
Mr Trump shocked European allies on Tuesday when he announced that hundreds of millions of dollars in US funding would be suspended while a review was conducted to assess the WHO’s “role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus”.
He also criticised the organisation's relationship with China. "American taxpayers provide between $400 million and $500 million per year to the WHO, in contrast China contributes roughly $40 million a year, even less," Mr Trump said. "As the organisation's leading sponsor, the US has a duty to insist on full accountability."
Critics countered that the White House was undermining the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic and other serious diseases in an effort to distract attention from questions over its own handling of the health emergency.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney slammed Mr Trump's decision as "indefensible" in the "midst of global pandemic".
He tweeted: “So many vulnerable populations rely on WHO – deliberately undermining funding & trust now is shocking. Now is a time for global leadership & unity to save lives, not division and blame!”
The European Commission said the EU backed the WHO in its efforts to contain the pandemic, had already provided additional funding and was looking into what it and its member states could do in response to US move. "This is the time for solidarity, not for finger-pointing or undermining multilateral co-operation," the commission said.
Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is due to host an online pledging conference on May 4th that will look at immediate funding gaps in combating the pandemic.
In Germany, Heiko Maas, foreign minister, said it did not help to "apportion blame" over the pandemic. Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, branded the US move "very alarming". "This is an example of a very selfish approach by the US authorities," he said, according to the Tass news agency.
Mr Trump's move was also condemned by Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and billionaire head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds," he wrote on Twitter.
The US, where more than 26,000 people have died from Covid-19, the largest official national death toll, is the largest single contributor to the WHO. Of the roughly $500 million (€457 million) it provides annually, $116 million is mandated by the UN and about another $400 million is in voluntary payments.
‘Dangerous and reckless’
In Washington, the president's move came under heavy fire from Democrats, while Republicans were largely supportive. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, described it as an "illegal" move that would be "swiftly challenged".
“The president’s halting of funding to the WHO as it leads the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic is senseless,” she added.
Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said it was a "dangerous and reckless" move at a time when people in the US and across the world were dying from the virus.
But Republicans were supportive either because of concerns that the organisation was too China-centric – echoing the claims of Mr Trump – or because of unease about international institutions.
“This is a critical time for worldwide public health and we cannot afford China apologists running the WHO,” said Lindsey Graham, a senator who generally backs US international engagement. “I support a suspension of funding ... until there is new leadership at the WHO.”
Stephen Griffin, associate professor at the school of medicine at the UK's University of Leeds, said Mr Trump's decision was perhaps "one of the least productive, most short-sighted, self-motivated and hypocritical acts I have ever witnessed".
China’s foreign ministry said Washington’s decision would “weaken the capabilities of the WHO, harm international co-operation against the epidemic, and affect various countries including the US itself domestically”.
But Australia's prime minister Scott Morrison also expressed concerns about the WHO's handling of the pandemic, calling for greater transparency from the health body on the causes of the outbreak. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020