GLOBAL HEALTH DIPLOMACY

Despite Trump's attack on WHO, Covid-19 response demands multilateral cooperation

The relationship between health, foreign policy and trade is at the cutting edge of global health diplomacy.

In Summary

• So far, Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement,  abandoned the Intermediate Nuclear Fores Treaty and has repeatedly threatened to leave Nato. Now he has suspended funding to WHO during the coronavirus pandemic. 

• In September 2019, he attacked globalism in his address to UN General Assembly, saying, "The  future belongs to patriots, not globalists."

US President Donald Trump addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at UN headquarters in New York City on September 24, 2019
US President Donald Trump addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at UN headquarters in New York City on September 24, 2019
Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

At a time the world needs unity in the war on the Covid-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump launched an attack on the UN global health agency.

Trump suspended funding to the World Health Organization on April 14, accusing it of poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He also said it helped China cover up the origin and extent of its coronavirus outbreak.

"The WHO really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet it is very China-centric. We will be giving that a good look," he tweeted. He threatened a permanent end to funding.

 
 

This was widely interpreted by many as an attack not only on WHO but also on multilateralism.

The WHO has also been widely criticised by others for bureaucracy and inaction, and also in the West Africa Ebola outbreak. However, it sends Covid-19 funds to dozens of countries, many of them poor.

In Kenya, for instance, it helped with the establishment of Mbagathi Isolation Centre and training of health workers. WHO says it is supporting countries to increase their readiness by ensuring early detection and control measures are in place.

The Trump administration was, however, already eyeing cuts to global health funds in its 2021 budget proposal, slashing more than $3 billion in overall programmes as early as February.

The cuts included half of its annual funding to the WHO. For 20-21, the US was to pay $236 million, China's amounting to $129 million.  

In a report by Foreign Policy magazine on February 10, US lawmakers pressed the State Department and USAID to explain why it made sense to scale back spending amidst a global pandemic. 

 

In the last three years, the Trump administration has slashed parts of America's overall annual contributions — multilateral aid — to the UN, which fell from $10 billion in 2016 to a requested $1 billion for the Department of State’s Contributions to International Organization's budget, the Pacific Standard reported in March 2019.

 

In April 2017, the State Department announced it was ending funding for the United Nations Population Fund over the issue of abortion services.

So far, Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, abandoned the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and repeatedly threatened to leave the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).

In September 2019, Trump attacked globalism in his address to UN General Assembly, saying, "The future belongs to patriots, not globalists."

Reactions

Responses to Trump's recent move were fast and furious, and all negative.

UN boss Antonio Guterres said this was was "not the time" to suspend funding to the WHO or any other organisation fighting the pandemic.

"Now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences," Guterres said.

At this crucial moment, supporting WHO is supporting multilateralism and global solidarity
Hua Chunying

WHO director general Tedros Ghebreyesus said he regretted  Trump's decision saying, "This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat."

"This virus is dangerous. When we are divided, the coronavirus exploits the cracks between us," he told a press conference in Geneva.

China's Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said under Tedros, WHO has played a key role in “international cooperation” to curb the spread of the virus and that it has Beijing's support.

Last Thursday, the country's director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department Hua Chunying announced they will give WHO an additional $30 million to support its anti-coronavirus efforts, a week after Trump announced the suspension of funding. 

“At this crucial moment, supporting WHO is supporting multilateralism and global solidarity,” Hua said.

Asked about Trump’s decision, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the UK has no plans to stop funding the WHO, as it has an important role to play in leading the global health response.

"The coronavirus is a global challenge and it’s essential that countries work together to tackle this shared threat.”

The African Union weighed in, reaffirming its unwavering support for WHO.

“The AU calls upon the international community to join hands to support the efforts of the DG and the entire WHO family as they lead global efforts to fight this pandemic."

"If there was a time for global unity, solidarity and cooperation, this is that time. Working together, we will be able to overcome this challenge,” the AU said on April 8. 

But while the AU has a joint strategy against Covid-19, little is seen in state cooperation, other than at the sub-regional level, for instance, Igad. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta said WHO has a leading role in the consolidation of multilateral efforts in the fight against the pandemic. 

Two important issues emerge here: The place of global health diplomacy and the divide on multilateralism.

With globalisation, health issues have become increasingly preeminent in international relations, even drawing non-state actors and individuals such as Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation.

British diplomat Robert Cooper in his book The Breaking of Nations. Order and Chaos in the 21st Century notes, “In the past, it was enough for a nation to look after itself. Today it is no longer sufficient.”

Global health diplomacy

WHO's Global health diplomacy brings together the disciplines of public health, international affairs, management, law and economics and focuses on negotiations that shape and manage the global policy on health.

WHO, established in April 1948, is itself a product of negotiations. Its primary role is to direct international health within the UN system and to lead partners in global responses.

It is important to note, the relationship between health, foreign policy and trade is at the cutting edge of global health diplomacy.

Global Health Diplomacy (GHD)  through WHO thus seeks to build capacity among states to support collective action to reduce health risks that transcend national boundaries. 

So, timely and effective cooperation among states is imperative, diplomats and experts say. So, global actors doing this and how?

Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya Elin Rognlie said, “No country can unilaterally solve this crisis. We need global solidarity and multilateral cooperation with a coordinated and effective response."

“Norway supports WHO and the Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan with NOK 100 million (Sh1 billion) and other key UN humanitarian partners WFP, UNHCR and UN Humanitarian,” she tweeted.

Siddharth Chatterjee, UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya, says multilateralism and public-private partnerships must be the bulwark to defeat global pandemics and accelerate socioeconomic progress.

But in a co-authored article for CNBC Africa, Chatterjee writes that so far, the pandemic has not been the finest hour for international cooperation. 

They note history will judge the efficacy of Covid-19 response by the degree to which it is coordinated globally, not individual state actions in isolation.

 "The fight to flatten the coronavirus curve is an acid test for stakeholder capitalism and especially for multilateralism," the article by Paul Polman, Chatterjee and Myriam Sidibe and published on April 17 notes.

States remain the main actors, even under multilateral arrangements, and GHD has to be strengthened, especially in Africa which has often been a recipient
Dr Kigen Morumbasi

International Relations lecturer Dr Kigen Morumbasi says, however, Trump's attack on WHO may not be directed against multilateralism but its failure in dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak, "specifically on the suppression of information at the initial stage".

"What we learn from this pandemic is that we cannot do away with multilateralism, although its nature and actors change over time based on the prevailing circumstances," Dr Morumbasi told this writer on Monday. He teaches at Strathmore University.

He notes that the world is more interconnected in all aspects and that developing countries cannot rely on external health assistance but have to upscale their own medical research and development.

"States remain the main actors, even under multilateral arrangements, and GHD has to be strengthened, especially in Africa which has often been a recipient," he said.

Another lesson to draw, he said, is that African states can also engage in GHD at the continental and regional levels due to the realities of the breakdown of global supplies.

EU Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen says the current crisis highlights the need for multilateralism.

"...we can see the importance of international partnerships and cooperation. I think that there is definitely a need for a geopolitical commission, for the commission that defends the multilateral international rule-based order".

"... we see at the moment that there are also actors and players in the world who are questioning the role of the UN, for instance, or the role of multilateralism. And I think the importance of international partnerships and also multilateralism is definitely there," Urpilainen told Deutsche Welle public broadcasters on April 21.

The European Union is joining forces with global partners to kick-start a pledging effort – the Coronavirus Global Response – starting on May 4.

Despite calls for social isolation to curb the spread of the virus and recent nationalism wave, states still need cooperation, as Covid-19 is proving.