UN Secretary-General António Guterres in August.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres in August. Credit: EPA / Justin Lane

The UN’s top administrator Tuesday night defended the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 efforts, hours after President Donald Trump said the United States would stop funding the agency, pending a review of its role in the pandemic.

“It is my belief that the World Health Organization must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement.

At his daily White House briefing Tuesday on the country’s progress in fighting coronavirus, Trump chided the WHO and said he would suspend payments to the organization — which has a $5.8 billion two-year budget — for between 60 and 90 days.

But it remained unclear how the funding stoppage would be handled and whether it would resume, and if so, if the WHO would be asked to meet certain conditions.

“The outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death, very little death, and certainly very little death by comparison,” Trump said, accusing the UN agency of reacting slowly to the pandemic.

“This would have saved thousands of lives and avoided worldwide economic damage … America and the world have chosen to rely on the WHO for accurate, timely and independent information to make important public health recommendations and decisions,” the president said. “If we cannot trust that this is what we will receive from the WHO, our country will be forced to find other ways to work with other nations to achieve public health goals.”

Trump has criticized the WHO for being too favorable to China throughout the course of the coronavirus crisis, which the Geneva-based agency identified as a pandemic March 11.

The agency has complimented China on its transparency, though Trump administration officials have said China could have been more forthcoming with warnings about the virus to help other countries contain it.

“One of the most dangerous and costly decisions from the WHO was its disastrous decision to oppose travel restrictions from China and other nations,” Trump said.

As the country with world’s largest economy, the United States pays the most to the WHO and several other UN functions, such as the operating budget and peacekeeping. Trump said the United States provides between $400 million and $500 million each year to the WHO.

UN records show that the United States is assessed 22% of the WHO budget.

“The World Health Organization, with thousands of its staff, is on the front lines, supporting Member States and their societies,” Guterres said, “especially the most vulnerable among them, with guidance, training, equipment and concrete lifesaving services as they fight the virus.”

Guterres said he understood that certain countries and their leaders may interpret differently the actions of UN agencies and countries — but that debate should happen at another time.

“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,” he said. “The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges, as they may arise in the future. But now is not that time. As it is not that time, it is also not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”

The cutoff mirrors the actions Trump took against the UN Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as well as refugee camps in other countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

In August 2018, Trump cut all aid to the group, to which it had long supplied more than $350 million each year, one-fourth to one-third of the relief agency’s budget.

At the time, Trump administration officials called UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation” that refused to make reforms in its management, and that the United States was shouldering too much of the burden to maintain its budget.

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