May 20 ------ World Health Organization member states agreed Tuesday to launch an investigation into its coronavirus response, after US President Donald Trump threatened to quit the UN agency and branded it a “puppet of China”. Trump has been locked in a bitter spat with Beijing, alleging it covered up the initial COVID-19 outbreak in central China late last year before the disease unleashed death and economic devastation across the planet.
Under pressure at home in the United States, which has far more virus cases and deaths than any other country, Trump has also targeted the WHO with accusations that it failed to do enough to combat the initial spread of the disease. “They’re a puppet of China, they’re China-centric to put it nicer,” he said at the White House on Monday, before threatening to make permanent a temporary freeze on US funding to the body. Beijing and Moscow hit out at Trump in response, accusing him of trying to damage the WHO for political ends.
With the row threatening the global response to the pandemic, WHO countries adopted a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international response, and the measures taken by the agency. Both the United States and China voted for the resolution, brought by the European Union at the WHO’s annual assembly, despite earlier fears that the tensions might make a full consensus impossible. More than 318,000 people have died of COVID-19 out of over 4.8 million infections worldwide since its emergence, and governments are scrambling to contain the virus while seeking ways to resuscitate their economies.
Trump turned the screws on the WHO on Monday — first in a press conference and then in a letter to the head of the organisation — giving it 30 days to show “substantive improvements” that demonstrated its “independence” from Beijing. The letter to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus threatened to permanently freeze US funding. The US is by far the biggest contributor.
As he launched his latest attack, Trump also dropped a bombshell saying he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that his own government’s experts have said is not suitable for fighting the coronavirus. “I take a pill every day,” said the president, adding that he is using it because he has “heard a lot of good stories”. Beijing has furiously denied the US allegations that it played down the virus threat, and accused Washington on Tuesday of trying to “smear China”. “The US tries to use China as an issue to shirk responsibility and bargain over its international obligations to the WHO,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.
Russia also denounced Trump’s threat. “We are against breaking everything there is for the sake of one state’s political or geopolitical preferences,” deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by news agency Interfax. The EU backed the WHO too, saying it was “not the time for finger pointing” — putting Brussels once again in opposition to Washington when it comes to Trump’s treatment of international organisations.