WASHINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s move to halt funding to the World Health Organization over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic prompted condemnation on Wednesday from world leaders as recorded global infections passed the 2 million mark.
Trump, who has reacted angrily to accusations his administration’s response to the worst epidemic in a century was haphazard and too slow, had become increasingly hostile towards the U.N. agency before announcing the halt on Tuesday.
He said the WHO, which is based in Geneva, had promoted China’s “disinformation” about the virus that likely led to a wider outbreak than otherwise would have occurred.
The WHO’s special envoy for the outbreak, David Nabarro, said on Wednesday that any recriminations should be left until after the virus has been defeated.
“If in the process you decide you want to declare that you’re going to withdraw funding or make other comments about the WHO, remember this is not just the WHO, this is the whole public health community that is involved right now,” he said in a webinar without naming the United States or Trump.
“Every single person in the world is a public health worker now, everybody is taking responsibility, everybody is sacrificing, everybody is involved,” Nabarro said.
A U.S. official told Reuters that Trump made the move despite pushback within his administration, especially from top health advisers.
Trump accused the WHO of failing to investigate credible reports from sources in China’s Wuhan province, where the virus was first identified in December, that conflicted with Beijing’s accounts about the spread.
“The WHO failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable,” he told a White House news conference on Tuesday, saying the organization had “parroted and publicly endorsed” the idea that human to human transmission was not happening.
GRAPHIC: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S. – here
“TIME FOR UNITY”
The United States is the biggest overall donor to the WHO, contributing more than $400 million in 2019, roughly 15% of its budget. The international health body has been appealing for more than $1 billion to fund operations against the pandemic.
The total number of world infections reached 2,001,548 cases on Wednesday after Britain reported its latest figures. The virus has killed 131,101 people, according to a Reuters tally.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said now was not the time to cut resources for the WHO: “Now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences.”
China, which has won WHO praise for its actions to curb the virus’s spread, urged the United States on Wednesday to fulfil its obligations to the WHO.
“This decision weakens the WHO’s capability and harms international cooperation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Twitter: “Deeply regret U.S. decision to suspend funding to WHO. There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the WHO was essential to tackling the pandemic. “At a time like this when we need to be sharing information and we need to have advice we can rely on, the WHO has provided that,” she said.
‘BLAME CHINA, NOT WHO’
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he sympathised with Trump’s criticisms of the WHO, especially its “unfathomable” support of re-opening China’s “wet markets”, where freshly slaughtered, and live, animals are sold.
“But that said, the WHO also as an organisation does a lot of important work including here in our region in the Pacific and we work closely with them,” Morrison told an Australian radio station.
“We are not going to throw the baby out of with the bathwater here, but they are also not immune from criticism.”
John Sawers, the former head of Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service, said China concealed crucial information about the outbreak from the rest of the world and that it would be better to hold China responsible rather than the WHO.
In its latest Strategy Update, the WHO said the world stands at a “pivotal juncture” and countries that ease restrictions should wait at least two weeks to evaluate the impact before easing again.
More than 2,200 people died in the United States on Tuesday, a record toll according to a Reuters tally, even as it debated how to reopen its economy.
New York City, hardest hit by the outbreak, revised its death toll sharply up to more than 10,000, to include victims presumed to have died of the lung disease but never tested.
U.S. health advocacy group Protect Our Care said Trump’s WHO funding withdrawal was “a transparent attempt … to distract from his history downplaying the severity of the coronavirus crisis and his administration’s failure to prepare our nation”.
Global stocks fell as oil prices dropped and warnings of the worst global recession since the 1930s underscored the economic damage done by the pandemic. The International Energy Agency forecast a 29 million barrel per day dive in April oil demand to levels not seen in 25 years.
Finance ministers and central bank governors from the Group of 20 major economies (G20) were meeting to discuss the crisis.
On the bright side, a 106-year-old woman, Connie Titchen, is thought to be the oldest patient in Britain to beat the coronavirus and has been discharged from hospital.
“I feel very lucky that I’ve fought off this virus,” Titchen said. “I can’t wait to see my family.”
(Open tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in a separate browser for an interactive graphic to track the global spread)
Reporting from Reuters bureaux across the world; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher