By withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States has inflicted a huge blow to the global efforts to combat the raging coronavirus pandemic and other health research programmes. The impulsive decision of the Trump administration is unconscionable, with far-reaching consequences on not just the WHO budgets but also on the fate of global health missions. The world health body has, unfortunately, become a victim of the high-stake political battle between the US and China. America’s exit may well signal Beijing’s dominance in running the affairs of the organisation mandated to collect and disseminate vital information to foreign governments on infectious diseases, coordinate vaccine research and provide crucial medical advice. At a time when the world is grappling with the worst pandemic in a century, WHO’s role is irreplaceable, though its track-record may not have been perfect. Trump had vowed to exit from the WHO in May, accusing it of being China-centric and misleading the world on the coronavirus spread at the behest of Beijing. While it is true that questions are being raised over its efficiency, the scientific and technical expertise that the WHO provides makes the world much safer and helps in fighting deadly diseases such as polio, tuberculosis and HIV. For several decades, America has dominated the global health landscape with its financial might, research and technological prowess. Trump’s move might bring about a seismic shift now in the way the global body is run.
On the positive side, the US exit may lead to greater democratisation of the organisation and create opportunities for countries like India to play a larger role in shaping global health priorities. There will also be scope for forging new alliances among countries to reform the WHO, make it stronger, multilateral and less dependent on one large contributor. There can be disagreements with the leadership of the organisation but its mission needs to be supported and strengthened. International coalitions are essential to fighting global challenges. For years, the WHO struggled to get adequate funding from countries. In the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it was forced to raise money by creating a Covid-Solidarity Response Fund. The global body has also been forced to accept funds from philanthropic foundations, which often have an over-sized influence on its agenda. While Trump has accused the WHO of kowtowing too much to China, the reality is that the US has had a disproportionate say at the Geneva-based agency with American experts holding key positions in all the advisory committees. The health programmes that America has long championed — whether it is combating drug-resistant tuberculosis, halting the spread of HIV, or slowing the assault of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria — will be weakened by the US withdrawal from the WHO.
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