For the last couple of days, international news media have been flooded with an unexpected decision of US President Donald Trump to hold funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO), the largest contributors among all the member countries with an amount totalling between $400-500 million a year.
Initially, Trump threatened funding hold on April 7, which saw an outpouring of backlash and criticisms from many governments and international organisations, including the secretary general of the United Nations. However, he went ahead and instructed his administration to hold the funding for "60to90" days until a thorough review is done on the ground of mismanagement, negligence and covering up the Covid-19 pandemic, exactly a week after his hint.
Trump seems not convinced and is unhappy with WHO's action for the last couple of months in response to Covid-19. The highest death toll along with the highest number of affected people in the US so far may have prompted him to take such a decision.
It is quite clear and convincing to many of us how well WHO has been handling the pandemic globally by providing technical, financial and supervisory assistance to combat Covid-19, thanks to the dedicated team at WHO.
Since WHO is runby the contribution from its member countries, holding funds at this hour by its top contributor is certainly not a good news and it may have a repercussion on WHO's overall activities unless the amount is compensated by other member countries, if US permanently halts funding.
Many people viewed the decision from the US president as immature, unfortunate, unexpected and unrealistic, but some may favour his decision and demand an appropriate response from the WHO to clear the ground, which is quite unlikely at the moment.
Since taking office, Trump has made some decisions that are indeed questionable and lacks credibility as a President of the world's most powerful nation. Moreover, he often ignored the intelligence gathered by his advisors and concerned authorities on many occasions, including the decision on battling Covid-19.
Whatever he has done in the past, many people still think his decision to hold the funding for WHO seems justifiable, if not fully but at least to some extent. Although I am not a fan of the US president and I strongly condemn his decision on WHO's funding, there are many conspiracy theories that may make many people wonder whether a prompt action taken by the WHO could have saved thousands of lives in line with the original claims of Trump.
Looking historically, China alerted WHO about unknown pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan on December 31 last year, which is at least more than a month after it was first reported to the Chinese authority by a local doctor in Wuhan. The first death due to Covid-19 occurred on January 11 and the victim was 61 years old that signifies it is a deadly virus. Within a week, the virus rapidly transmitted domestically and spread outside China to Thailand and subsequently to many other East Asian and European countries.
One of the decisions taken by WHO in the last week of January that critiques view as faulty, including President Trump, was that the virus may not be of "international concern" and there is "no evidence" of human to human transfer based on facts given by the Chinese authority. That is perhaps one of the reasons why most of the countries including the US took the virus lightly and did not take credible actions in case of an outbreak by then.
Nonetheless, WHO was even condemning countries that were planning to shut their borders from outside world, particularly China in the early days of the pandemic. Since it was the time of Chinese New Year eve, millions of people from the affected areas travelled to many countries to enjoy long holiday or an escape from the virus as many countries were still open. That was the turning point for Covid-19 to take a global shape and now it has affected almost all countries in the world.
There are a couple of explanations based on conspiracy theories on the ground of why WHO's decision in January is questionable from many angles. First, many international think tanks, governments and organisations have disputes and low credibility in China's transparency in the past particularly when it comes to sensitive issues. Hence, putting 100 percent trust in the Chinese government's facts about Covid-19 and praising their effort to tackle the crisis on the early days was a severe mistake from an international organisation like WHO even after an infectious disease expert claimed human to human transfer of the virus.
There are many views, including Trump's, that WHO could have done more in the initial stages particularly in the month of January by directly investigating the outbreak from the ground to find out the actual facts rather than relying on fabricated news from the Chinese authority. Although WHO did declare coronavirus as a global emergency at the end of January, the virus was by then already transferred to many countries and it was unstoppable as it seems by then.
Second, looking at the current statistics of the affected people by Covid-19, it grew exponentially in many countries and China ranked 7th in terms of total affected people to date, which is quite unusual because of a large and densely populated country like China. In terms of number of deaths, China also has a low fatality rate at around four percent, which is significantly lower than many other countries that were hardly hit by the virus.
If these were the real numbers, then certainly China deserves praise and international accolade. However, many critiques were of the view that these statistics about China are fabricated and the actual number may be up to 10 times higher, which I suppose is untrue. Experts also found that fatality rates among elderly people is high and China is cited to have a large segment of ageing population due to one-child policy, but it is not reflected accordingly in the total death toll that raises eyebrows to many including Trump. That is why he even claimed that US death toll is high because we report everything, but China did not.
Third, we are living in the era of globalisation and probably the best period of the history before Covid-19. Moving from one place to another becomes a matter of seconds, literary. Majority of the countries have now closed their borders and some countries only allow their citizens to enter with a condition that they must go through at least a 14-day quarantine.
Since international movement was the main channel of Covid-19 to transmit from one place to another, the spread of virus could have been minimised with early decision of halting international movement of people, not goods and services. This could probably have been the best option for containment and mitigation for countries with fewer resources in the health-related sectors.
Hence, WHO should have been more sincere and proactive to project the global consequences of such pandemic the moment coronavirus started spreading outside China. But it is quite late to get an announcement on controlling international movement of people for a short-term from WHO. If late decision was due to poor management that is highly unlikely or influenced by third parties, WHO should view this as an important lesson for the future.
If the critiques were right as the conspiracy theory suggests, the Chinese government may have covered up the situation, which is also the claim of Trump now despite praisingChina's effort during early days of the outbreak. If this is so, it unquestionably undermined the potential global consequences of Covid-19 at the personal gain of a particular country.
Transparency in revealing the actual scenario could have revealed the true behaviour of the virus and signalled other countries to prepare for the worse. As the guardian of global health, WHO has failed to realise this on the initial outset, which could have been prevented if they were firm, independent and strong to scrutinise and fact-check China's situation from the ground and advise accordingly to the global authorities.
These are some of the facts based on conspiracies why there is a feud between Trump and WHO and why he has ordered to hold funding. While it is quite highly unlikely to fact check China's claim and reverse backward, this is not a time for political rhetoric and burbs rather than fight the pandemic together.
In this sense, Trump's decision to hold funding is immature and goes against the conventional wisdom for a healthy and stable world. However, it is hoped that no serious mismanagement will be generated from the review of WHO's action as they also have limited capacity when dealing with countries like China.
Overall, we are going through a tough time of the century and many countries lack experience in handling such a pandemic in the past makes the situation even worse. While we do not know how long it might take to get back to normal life, but the situation has raised some facts that may make many people wonder.
It reveals how helpless we are when a tiny enemy attacks us, which we cannot even see by our bare eyes. What is the use of multi-billion-dollar arms deal that we are proudly stockpiling and cannot use today? If these arms deal were instead channelled to healthcare industry, we could have fought Covid-19with the strongest force and the earliest possible time with minimal fatality.
Moreover, this pandemic also exposes deficiency of human being and global healthcare system, which is the limited capacity to respond early and only when it is out of reach. But how well and how fast we reach the unreachable (probably by developing the vaccine) will determine the number of loved ones we can save.
Dr Aslam Mia is a senior lecturer at the school of management, UniversitiSains Malaysia, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia.