Fact check: President Donald Trump vs. the World Health Organization
President Donald Trump has leveled several criticisms against the World Health Organization, the Geneva-based multilateral organization that is leading the international response to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has also threatened to withdraw funding from the specialized agency of the United Nations.
Trump has accused WHO of not moving quickly enough to sound the alarm over COVID-19 and of being too China-friendly. He has also attacked the agency for advising the U.S. against banning travel from China to other parts of the world amid the outbreak. Trump's assertions have been made in White House COVID-19 media briefings.
Claim: WHO was slow to respond
"They called it wrong. They really – they missed the call. They could have called it months earlier. They would have known, and they should have known. And they probably did know," Trump said in the April 7 media briefing at the White House.
According to WHO's own timeline of published statements, China first reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, Hubei Province, on Dec. 31, 2019. A day later, WHO said it "set up the IMST (Incident Management Support Team) across the three levels of the organization: headquarters, regional headquarters and country level, putting the organization on an emergency footing for dealing with the outbreak."
Over the following days and weeks, WHO documents show, the organization activated various public information campaigns on social media and starting giving technical guidance to counties on how to detect, test and manage for potential cases.
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Between Jan. 20 and Jan. 23, WHO experts from its China and Western Pacific regional offices made a brief field visit to Wuhan and convened an emergency meeting to decide whether the outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern. It did so on Jan. 30.
From late January to early February, WHO met with China's leaderships, convened meetings with hundreds of experts and donors to discuss the outbreak and again visited Wuhan to speak with health officials, scientists and caregivers at the city's hospitals. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also started holding daily press briefings during which he urged countries around the world to start taking decisive action to limit the disease's spread. These messages were repeatedly amplified on his own and WHO social media accounts during this time.
WHO declared the outbreak a global pandemic on March 11, a timing it justified on the basis that the disease had reached a point where it had taken hold in enough countries around the world, besides China, where it originated.
Thomas J. Bollyky, director of the global health program and senior fellow for global health, economics and development at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said WHO could have considered declaring the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern a week earlier than Jan. 30, but said there was little to no merit in Trump's claim that the organization responded too slowly.
Trump himself appears to have first mentioned the virus in public during a TV interview from Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 22, just a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported the first travel-related case in the country. "We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control," he said.
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Claim: WHO is too friendly to China
"They seem to be very China-centric. And we have to look into that. So we’re going to look into it," Trump said in the media briefing at the White House on April 7.
Trump's claim that WHO is biased toward China is difficult to fact-check because it is an opinion that is political in nature. It's also not fully clear to which aspects of China's WHO participation the president is referring to, said Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert specializing in China at New Jersey's Seton Hall University.
Huang said some China critics have argued that the WHO is disproportionately deferential to China considering that Beijing contributes about 3% to WHO's annual budget compared to the United States' 12%-13% contribution. Huang said that Trump's rhetoric may have been referring to this aspect given the president's previous preoccupation with getting members of the NATO military alliance to meet spending goals.
WHO's total annual projected budget for 2020-21 is about $5 billion, according to financial documents published on the agency's website.
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He said that since the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003, China has "increased its voice" within the WHO. Chinese-Canadian national Margaret Chan was WHO's director-general between 2006-2017. "China's support guaranteed her reelection," he said.
Last year, for the first time, WHO endorsed the use of traditional Chinese medicine to treat some medical complaints, a move that drew criticism from animal rights activists who argued it could lead to more illegal wildlife trafficking. "China recognizes the importance of using the WHO to increase its international influence," Huang said.
Ruling: No clear evidence either way
Claim: WHO advised the U.S. against banning travel from China
"They actually criticized and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it. And they were wrong," Trump said in the April 7 media briefing at the White House.
The president was referring to his administration’s decision, on Jan. 31, to close U.S. borders to foreign nationals who had been in China in the previous 14 days. The ban did not apply to Americans who had been in China, many of whom returned to the U.S.
Trump's ban was effective Feb. 2.
Think Global Health, a unit of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, has identified 96 countries and territories that have imposed some form of travel restriction against China as of April 3. WHO, by contrast, according to Think Global Health, has not "recommended any travel or trade restrictions against China or other affected regions, and in updated guidelines on managing ill travelers and considerations for quarantine has yet to recommend any restrictions on trade or travel."
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However, there is no public record of WHO at any point actively criticizing the U.S. or any other country for deciding to implement a coronavirus-related travel ban.
In fact, WHO has a longstanding objection to travel bans when it comes to infectious disease because it does not believe they necessarily work based on its experience combating Ebola, SARS, HIV, Tuberculosis and other communicable disease, and has been concerned such bans can aggravate an outbreak by creating a false sense of security.
"We’ve always believed that the real point of entry of a virus to a country is, very often, in a poorly equipped emergency room in a doctor’s clinic where there’s no awareness of the disease, and not necessarily in points of quarantine or points of entry," said Mike Ryan, the head of WHO’s health emergencies program, in a coronavirus-related media briefing on Feb. 6 in Geneva. "We do support entry screening and other measures, as part of a comprehensive package. But what we absolutely have to avoid in this case is disease arriving in an unprotected health facility with untrained, unaware workers and having an amplification of disease in a clinical setting," he said.
WHO, in short, opposes all travel bans during a pandemic, not just Trump's, and not just related to COVID-19. Trump's assertion that the WHO "was wrong" can't be fact-checked because there is no alternative benchmark or denominator to match it against. In other words, we can't assess what the result would have been had a travel ban not been imposed.
As of April 12, the U.S. has more coronavirus infections than anywhere else in the world. It has also surpassed the country with the previous highest death toll – Italy.
Ruling: Mostly false
- White House media briefings
- World Health Organization statements
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control
- Thomas J. Bollyky, Council on Foreign Relations
- Think Global Health, a unit of Council on Foreign Relations
- Yanzhong Huang, Seton Hall University