The following is a guest post by Isabella Alcañiz and Timothy Hellwig. Isabella Alcañiz is Associate Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include climate inequality, disaster policy, the state in the global south, and Latin American politics. She is author of Environmental and Nuclear Networks in the Global South: How Skills Shape International Cooperation (2016, Cambridge). Timothy Hellwig is Professor of Political Science and Academic Director of the Europe Gateway at Indiana University.  He is a team member of the Executive Approval Project and coauthor of Democracy Under Siege? Parties, Voters, and Elections After the Great Recession (forthcoming, Oxford).

Last week, President Donald Trump threatened to permanently cut US funding to the World Health Organization and eventually leave the institution. The opening salvo of Trump’s war against the United Nations agency in charge of global public health came a month ago, when the American president first stopped paying US dues. To many, Trump’s escalating threats to the very organization tasked with monitoring, evaluating, and communicating global health risks during the coronavirus pandemic is equivalent to dismissing the generals on the way into battle. The move has left the United States further isolated in the international arena, with key European allies declaring their support of the UN agency.  

Trump maintains that the WHO’s response during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis justified his unprecedented move. The WHO, he claims, failed to acknowledge reports of the virus out of Wuhan, China in late 2019 even though there was yet to be substantiated evidence to the effect. Rather, the WHO began monitoring the situation in the Chinese province once the first public reports about a novel coronavirus surfaced and issued early guidance about contact protection shortly after the first of the year. In his letter breaking up with the organization, Trump also accused the international organization of showering praise on China and accepting its coronavirus-related data without question. However, this charge is not based on evidence and, given Trump’s own approval of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s response to the pandemic, rings hollow. 

The threat to halt funding permanently to the world’s pre-eminent public health agency during a public health crisis appears highly reckless. Trump’s actions, however, are more strategic than they first seem.

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