WASHINGTON – A chief adviser to the World Health Organization’s director-general said the recent decision by the United States to halt funding to the organization is “devastating” and that the U.S. should rethink the move.
Dr. Senait Fisseha is a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan’s medical school and a lawyer. She said the suspension would have a significant impact on the U.N. organization’s ability to fight for global public health.
“Where we’re going to feel the pinch the most is going to be around routine services like immunizations, lifesaving interventions that the WHO provides in collaboration with national governments,” Senait told VOA via Skype. “So, this is not good news. Of course, the decision is not final.”
Last year, U.S. funding made up about $450 million of the WHO’s $6 billion budget. President Donald Trump has expressed frustration at statements by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, which appeared to excuse China from blame for the origination of the coronavirus and seemed to applaud their efforts to contain it.
On April 14, Trump ordered a 90-day halt to WHO funding for “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” The acting administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, John Barsa, said that during the pause in funding, the U.S. will try to build relationships with other international health agencies.
“We’re going with existing programs outside of the World Health Organization, and we’re looking for different partners,” he said during a press conference.
But Senait said the timing for such a move is disastrous. The WHO is providing global surveillance of the spread of the disease, coordinating the international response and giving advice, and training to health practitioners.
“If anything, this is the time where U.S. leadership is enormously critical globally,” Senait said. “And not only do we expect and we hope funding will be reinstated, but rather we want to see an increase in funding to fight this pandemic. We are all in this together.”
The WHO has received criticism for early missteps in response to the virus. On Jan. 14, the organization tweeted that Chinese authorities had found no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. This proved to be false.
The WHO also waited until March 11 to declare coronavirus a global pandemic. By that time cases had been recorded in 110 countries.
But Senait said the WHO seeks to stay out of politics and maintain a relationship with all countries in order to have access to information. She pointed out that, early on, the WHO sent a team of international scientists to China to investigate the outbreak. Within two weeks of the first public reports of the virus, the WHO was able to share the sequenced gene of the virus which was used to create, diagnostic tools and for research on a vaccine.
“Frankly, the world is able to do this only because WHO can coordinate this response,” Senait said. “A lot of countries have a bilateral relationship. The United States has a relationship with China. But those bilateral relationships are fraught with a lot of politics. And what the WHO tries to do is stay away from politics and focus on global public health.”
WHO Director-General Tedros has also been under fire for praising China’s “transparency” in reporting about the virus at a time many believe Chinese officials were underreporting the extent of the outbreak.
Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives have written a letter accusing Tedros of supporting a Chinese “propaganda campaign” and demanding that Tedros release all correspondence between the WHO and Chinese officials.
But Senait, who is originally from Ethiopia and has worked with Tedros on public health issues for 20 years, said Tedros is a leader of the highest integrity. She pointed out that during his time as Ethiopia’s health minister, he relentlessly worked to decrease maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS infections, malaria, tuberculosis and mortality for children under five years old.
“He was highly focused. He was highly precise. He was fantastic at garnering partnerships and collaboration and support,” she said.
However, Tedros was criticized for his role in responding to cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia during his time as health minister. For years, Ethiopian officials have reported the outbreaks as “acute watery diarrhea” in an apparent effort to downplay their severity.
Some critics see parallels between that response and the current one. “That episode bears a striking, chilling resemblance to the WHO’s response to the coronavirus’s appearance in China,” wrote Jianli Yang, the president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, and Aaron Rhodes, the president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, in an op-ed for the National Review.
Senait believes Tedros will weather the storm and is the right person to lead the global health body. “There are going to be critics. It doesn’t mean that Dr. Tedros is a perfect person. The good thing about him is he has a growth mindset. He’s always willing to learn and grow and improve. But the truth is some of the attacks that have been targeted at him during this time are heavily unfounded. They are very political,” Senait said.