US President Donald Trump’s decision to halt funding to the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) is “an own goal in a class of its own” and “a distraction from his own failings”, according to Swiss newspapers.
“First it was the Democrats in opposition, whom Donald Trump accused of distorting his management of the pandemic to discredit him in the eyes of the Americans,” wroteexternal link the Tribune de Genève.
“Then it was Barack Obama, who had apparently bequeathed him a totally obsolete infrastructure for fighting infectious diseases. Then there was China, which allegedly misled him. Then there were the New York hospital employees who, according to the president, stole protective masks. Then the governors who dared criticise him. And finally the media, who, according to his reading of their coverage of the disaster, had minimised the scale of the epidemic.”
Trump’s scapegoats have evolved over the weeks, the paper said. “On Tuesday it was the turn of the World Health Organization to bear the brunt of White House excuses.”
Trump, who has reacted angrily to accusations his administration’s response to the worst epidemic in a century has been haphazard and slow, had become increasingly hostile towards the UN agency before announcing the halt on Tuesday.
He accuses the WHO of severely mismanaging the pandemic and covering up its spread. He also criticises its relationship with China and said it must be held accountable. The United States is the biggest overall donor to the WHO, contributing more than $400 million (CHF387 million) last year, roughly 15% of the organisation’s budget.
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) said Trump’s move to freeze funding while his administration carries out a 60-90 day review of the WHO response was “an own goal in a class of its own”, opening the door for Chinese influence in the UN.
“Trump complains that the WHO pays too much attention to Beijing’s concerns. By weakening the Geneva-based organisation in its biggest health crisis since its creation, he’s basically inviting China to expand its influence further,” it wroteexternal link.
While the NZZ said China’s engagement in multilateral forums was generally to be welcomed, the problem was that the values of the Communist Party clashed with those of the UN, notably on human rights.
“The leading role in the democratic camp was long held by the United States. Trump has waved goodbye to that.”
Le Temps in Lausanne added in its editorialexternal link that Washington was terrified of the Chinese desire to rewrite international standards, “but the two powers are playing a different game: Beijing is in it for the long term, while Trump wants to snuff out his administration’s fiasco dealing with Covid-19 as quickly as possible by making an easy scapegoat – to preserve his chances of re-election in November”.
It said Trump’s decision was “a huge wake-up call for International Geneva and multilateralism. Above all, it’s very bad news on the global health front as the world fights a devastating pandemic”.
The Tages-Anzeiger in Zurich agreedexternal link that Trump had found a scapegoat and he “clearly wants to distract from his own failings”.
The United States is the world’s worst-affected country and its coronavirus death toll topped 30,000 on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally. The fatalities have doubled in just a week and set a record single-day increase for the second day in a row.
Not that the WHO is perfect. The NZZ pointed to the funding structure – a mixture of voluntary funding and assessed contributions based on a country’s wealth and population. Around three-quarters of US funding was voluntary for 2018-2019.
“Those who know the WHO have long criticised the organisation for being too dependent on voluntary contributions which are often tied to specific projects,” the NZZ said.
“This makes it vulnerable to influence from member countries, but also from foundations and private companies. Trump illustrates the problem with his sledgehammer method: if he cancels voluntary contributions to the WHO, the decision of a single man will bring entire programmes for world health to a standstill.”
The paper pointed out that China currently pays fewer voluntary contributions to the WHO than Switzerland and Beijing will hardly be asked twice to fill the vacuum created by the US standing aside.
“Other democratic countries would do well to step into the breach first,” it said. “The coronavirus pandemic shows that the world needs a strong and transparent guardian of global health. To achieve this, the WHO must be reformed and improved. But in order for it to be able to fulfil its tasks, it needs stable funding that is not dependent on the whims of individual politicians.”