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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

President Trump saying WHO is at fault is unlikely to help curb coronavirus

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left, with WHO Director

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left, with WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Feb. 24. Credit: Pool / AFP via Getty Images / Salvatore Di Nolfi


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President Donald Trump's talk of halting funding for the World Health Organization sounds like campaign fodder. He is tapping into a long-held sentiment of many voters that the U.S. funds WHO's parent organization, the United Nations, without seeing benefits.

But a quick look at previous Trump funding freezes raises doubts about the real-life results of these sorts of "no-soup-for-you" gestures.

The most famous example may be the hold Trump put on military aid to Ukraine, pending an announcement of a "corruption" investigation pointed at U.S. Democrats. The aid went through, the probe never was announced and Trump's impeachment became the biggest result.

Trump says delaying an annual $400 million to WHO, or about 15% of its international contributions, will prod "reform" and "transparency."

He also had called the Ukraine aid freeze a bid for reform, so set your expectations accordingly.

In March 2019, Trump also announced he'd decided to cut $450 million in foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. He said they weren't doing enough to stop the flow to the U.S. of their own nationals, many of whom were fleeing violence, crime and agricultural failure.

Critics warned the decision would boomerang, since the funding was aimed at keeping people there, in part by aiding security and judicial systems.

In October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared victory and called the aid freeze partially reversed. He informed lawmakers of "my intent to resume targeted U.S. foreign assistance" to the Central American nations.

"Thanks to the President’s policy and to the response from these countries, we are seeing great progress," Pompeo said.

Did the cutoff succeed? Previously funded aid programs had just begun to shut down, possibly driving up migration numbers, experts said. But clear cause and effect are hard to see.

There is a question of whether Trump's WHO cutoff, if followed up, will even affect the organization's operations.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the agency “is reviewing the impact on our work of any withdrawal of U.S. funding and will work with our partners to fill any financial gaps we face.”

The impact of other Trump money cutoffs also is questionable.

After withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the president reimposed sanctions. But the same parties remain in charge of the government in Tehran, despite hawks in the U.S. calling for regime change.

Last month, Trump said his administration would begin withholding funding from "sanctuary cities" after a federal court ruled it could do so.

For now, though, it seems doubtful cities or states will allow their law enforcement officers to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and deportations, or determine medical care based on immigration status.

This week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres of Portugal said from Geneva: "Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis.”

Guterres continued: "The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges, as they may arise in the future. But now is not that time.”

Under fire for his own early inaction, Trump said the WHO didn't question China's failures to contain the virus and made a “disastrous decision” to oppose travel restrictions as it spread.

Trump, reluctant to confront Chinese President Xi Jinping on the topic, has exaggerated his role in those restrictions, saying: “When I did China, it had never been done before. I was the first one to do it."

Thirty-eight countries had imposed travel restrictions on travel from China by the time U.S. restrictions were in place on Feb. 2.

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