On April 14, President Trump announced he would be cutting funding to the World Health Organization for not doing enough to address the virus in the early days of the outbreak. The Trump administration has received identical criticism for its response. As a longtime critic of the United Nations, WHO’s parent agency, Trump’s transference of blame for minimizing potential impacts of the virus outbreak is not a surprising turn of events.
The While House communications team’s argument hinged on the WHO’s initially acting on underreported cases out of Wuhan, China. “The WHO failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said in an April 14 press conference.
As most PR practitioners know, playing the blame game is a short-term solution that often backfires, and riling the international relief community could prove to be a risky move in an election year.
The U.S. is the biggest donor to the WHO, contributing over $400 million in 2019, about 15 percent of the agency’s total budget. But major humanitarian donors, like Bill Gates, still have faith in the institution.
Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds. Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.
— Bill Gates (@BillGates) April 15, 2020
The WHO has not responded directly on social media or its website to the defunding statement as of this writing (a look at its Newsroom-yielded Ebola outbreak information), forging forward with proactive public health messaging instead.
Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, however, said in an April 15 press conference that President Trump’s decision was regrettable. He emphasized that the U.S. has been a longstanding partner of the WHO, which seeks to “improve the health of many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”
The release did not appear in the Newsroom section of the WHO website. It was buried in a microsite devoted to the Director-General's press statements.
Ghebrayesus' account also tweeted out an updated (as of April 13) strategy guide for international public health responses, arguing the organization is already operating with due haste. (Unfortunately, WHO's social media team failed to note the absent social graphic, potentially signaling a communications department under duress.)
“One of the main things we’ve learned in the past months about #COVID19 is that the faster all cases are found, tested, isolated & cared for, the harder we make it for the virus to spread. This principle will save lives & mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic,” the Director-General’s Twitter account read on Wednesday. “There is no time to waste.”
The updated @WHO global #COVID19 strategy guides the public health response at national and subnational levels, including practical guidance for strategic action, tailored to the local context. https://t.co/08xlv7HLC4
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) April 15, 2020
Meanwhile, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway focused on the China-WHO relationship in a Fox News segment on Wednesday. The coziness between China and the World Health Organization has been a talking point from the right since the pandemic began pervading the global discourse in mid-February. Conway tweaked the defunding language slightly, saying it was “paused” for now, baffling members of the media by suggesting that the “19” in COVID-19 was a stand-in for overall global experience with the virus.
Kellyanne Conway: "This is COVID-19, not COVID-1 folks, and so you would think the people in charge of the World Health Organization, facts and figures, would be on top of that." pic.twitter.com/losQ3H4ZhW
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) April 15, 2020
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