EU seeks to reform WHO after US exit

Updated 09 Jul 2020

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The US provides WHO with more than $450 million per year and currently owes some $200 million in current and past dues. — Reuters/File
The US provides WHO with more than $450 million per year and currently owes some $200 million in current and past dues. — Reuters/File

GENEVA: Germany’s health minister on Wednesday lamented the formal US notification of its withdrawal from the World Health Organisation as a setback for international cooperation and said Europe would work to reform the UN health agency.

The comments from German Health Minister Jens Spahn epitomised concerns in Europe over the WHO’s largest contributor preparing to pull out following the Trump administration’s complaints that the agency too readily accepted China’s explanations of its early handling of the coronavirus.

Spahn said on Twitter that more global cooperation, not less, is needed to fight pandemics, adding: European states will initiate #WHO reforms.

The United Nations and the US State Department said that the Trump administration had formally notified the UN that the United States would leave the WHO next year.

The notification, which could be rescinded by a new administration or if circumstances change, makes good on President Donald Trumps vow in late May to terminate US participation in the WHO. Trump has criticised the UN health agency for its response to Covid-19 outbreak and accused its officials of bowing to China.

The US provides WHO with more than $450 million per year and currently owes some $200 million in current and past dues.

Juergen Hardt, a foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition, said that the US withdrawal damages American and Western strategic interests just as China, a key WHO member state, has been taking a greater role in international institutions.

As the biggest contributor so far, the US leaves a big vacuum, Hardt said. It is foreseeable that China above all will try to fill this vacuum itself. That will further complicate necessary reforms in the organisation. It is all the more important that the EU uses its political weight and strengthens its involvement in the WHO as in other international organisations, he added.

Read: Explainer: What the US funds freeze could mean for WHO and its work

Earlier Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended WHO and said the US move was another demonstration of the US pursuing unilateralism, withdrawing from groups and breaking contracts.

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzlez Laya said the WHO needs more autonomy and that more preparation was needed for future pandemics.

What we need today is more multilateralism and less national sovereignty as a guarantee for protecting our citizens, even if that means that we go against what others have said in other parts of the world, Gonzlez Laya told reporters. Let’s not get carried away by siren songs.

Dr David Heymann, an American who is a former senior director at WHO, said he was very disappointed at the US decision to exit the agency. He said he expects Germany and other countries to step forward if the US funding and expertise that has benefited WHO ends.

As much as it would be terrible if the US leaves WHO and leaves (with) that expertise it has provided throughout the years, the WHO would continue to function, Heymann said.

Other global health experts warned that no other agency could do what WHO does and that the US departure would severely weaken it — and public health more broadly.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2020