Trump Scapegoats China and WHO—and Americans Will Suffer

The White House’s official narrative about the pandemic is contradicted by the facts—and creates new obstacles to stopping the virus.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on April 14.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on April 14. Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Friday, President Donald Trump declared that the United States would be terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO). It was a decision both immoral and likely illegal. It also encapsulates the most questionable aspects of the president’s leadership style: his penchant to blame others for his mistakes, his refusal to share the global stage politely with other actors, his indulgence of blind self-interest, and his utter contempt of science.

Trump cited issues he formally raised on April 15 in a White House statement, in which he charged the Geneva-based United Nations agency with “mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic” and claimed that “WHO repeatedly parroted the Chinese government’s claims that the coronavirus was not spreading between humans … [and] praised the Chinese government’s response throughout January.” Two weeks later, Trump ordered the U.S. intelligence community to formally investigate WHO and its relationship with China, amid allegations from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that what he called “Wuhan virus” was either manufactured in or leaked from the Chinese city’s biosafety level 4 laboratory, equipped to handle the most dangerous pathogens. This claim, which Pompeo has repeated many times, had been largely rejected by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which said it “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.”

Like a petulant child, Trump has repeatedly claimed that the deaths of more than 100,000 Americans to COVID-19 were somebody else’s fault: China or WHO. “We’re doing very serious investigations. … We are not happy with China,” Trump said during an April 27 White House news conference. “There are a lot of ways you can hold them accountable. … We believe it could have been stopped at the source. It could have been stopped quickly, and it wouldn’t have spread all over the world.” Three days later, Trump went deeper: “It’s a terrible thing that happened. Whether they made a mistake or whether it started off as a mistake and then they made another one, or did somebody do something on purpose,” China started the pandemic.

Top Republican leaders have told me that party polling consistently reveals that China-bashing is immensely popular among Trump supporters and that the “blame China” theme can help reelect the president in November, offsetting some of the disdain many Americans have for his handling of the country’s COVID-19 crisis. Recently published polls show party divides on these issues. For example, in a CBS News poll, 67 percent of Republicans said the new coronavirus was manmade, while only 30 percent of Democrats agreed. A Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans held negative views of the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping but Republican views were consistently more unfavorable. Another survey found 73 percent of Americans, from both parties, saying the Chinese government bears some responsibility for COVID-19 deaths in the United States.

Public opinion about WHO is more complicated. A Politico/Morning Consult poll in late May found 43 percent of Americans surveyed rating the agency’s performance poor or “just fair” versus 48 percent rating it good or excellent. Asked to assess the U.N. agency’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, 35 percent judged it insufficient, 40 percent thought it adequate, and 9 percent said WHO was doing “too much” to fight the virus.

That ambiguity hasn’t deterred the administration from targeting WHO. On May 18, at a virtual gathering of WHO’s World Health Assembly, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told representatives of 194 nations: “We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control. There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives.” Azar called for an independent review of WHO’s performance in the pandemic. Azar was followed by Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei, who announced that China would give an additional $2 billion, above its annual dues, to WHO.

Xi told the same May gathering of the World Health Assembly that he would support an investigation of the early days of the Wuhan outbreak but not until the global crisis had calmed down worldwide. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and his staff, for their part, have already delivered detailed accountings of the agency’s activities and statements in December and January. But some crucial context is needed to understand both the organization’s successes and failures. Under its 1948 constitution, WHO serves and deals with nation-states—not civil society, NGOs, private industry, or groups of physicians. Just as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rarely contradicts statements or data issued by any state, WHO cannot typically contradict a nation.

Chinese authorities most certainly did downplay the Wuhan epidemic in December and January, grossly understating case numbers in daily reports to WHO; insisting the virus was only spread from animals in a market, which they closed; and denying that human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 was possible. Physicians in Wuhan who tried to warn the medical world about the emergence of a SARS-like pneumonia virus were severely penalized, as were independent Chinese journalists. One key doctor sounding the alarm, Li Wenliang, died of COVID-19 in early February, and his colleague Ai Fen disappeared in April. Beijing authorities turned down January requests from WHO to send an independent scientific team to Wuhan, and nothing resembling accurate case numbers was officially reported until Jan. 19. Four days later, Wuhan was locked down.

That lockdown ultimately prevented a catastrophic epidemic that, according to a multinational team of independent researchers, would have likely infected more than 7.7 million Chinese, rather than the 114,325 estimated as of the end of February. On the other hand, if China had locked Wuhan down a week earlier, on Jan. 16, some 75,000 fewer people could have been infected. According to two epidemiologists, the United States, which started social distancing under White House guidelines on March 16, might have spared 90 percent of the nation’s deaths had it gone on lockdown two weeks earlier, on March 2. That’s a decidedly uncomfortable finding for the White House.

The central White House allegation, therefore, is that China’s coverup led to an underestimate in Washington of the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak and an inability to recognize the need to prepare the United States. Moreover, because WHO didn’t publicly contradict Beijing’s claims, and twice declined to declare an official public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) before finally doing so on Jan. 30, the Trump administration accuses the agency of colluding with Beijing—in essence, of being a co-conspirator.

But the president’s accusations come despite ample evidence that the U.S. intelligence community provided the White House with detailed, urgent assessments of the Chinese outbreak in December and January and that U.S. personnel assigned to WHO continually fed detailed reports from Geneva.

Implicit in Trump’s charges against WHO is that he acted decisively as soon as the organization provided information about the urgency of the situation. The president has repeatedly insisted that his administration took swift action in late January, when he ordered the cessation of travel from Wuhan and other parts of China. In March, Trump claimed that travel restrictions “saved a lot of lives” and that by late March the numbers saved grew to “probably tens of thousands.” And at a White House briefing on April 7, Trump said: “I was called all sorts of names when I closed it down to China. … If I didn’t do that, we would’ve had hundreds of thousands more people dying.”

But a recent stunning study executed by the evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona has thrown serious doubt on the travel restrictions hypothesis. By analyzing the genetic details of thousands of SARS-CoV-2 viruses, Worobey and his team discovered that the earliest case in the Seattle area, considered patient zero for the United States, did not actually spawn the American epidemic. That individual who arrived from Wuhan to Seattle on Jan. 15 did pass his virus on to a handful of other people, but then, the spread stopped. Though travel restrictions were in place in February, some 40,000 people—including U.S. citizens—entered the country afterward, and one of them arrived in the Seattle area between Feb. 13 and 19, spreading the virus and starting the West Coast epidemic.

Similarly, Worobey’s group showed that the earliest Wuhan-to-Europe cases identified in early February never sparked outbreaks, but a traveler from Hubei to Italy arriving sometime between Feb. 7 and 14 started the huge Lombardy epidemic. And viruses found in New York City are genetic descendants of that Italian outbreak, which arrived sometime around Feb. 20, weeks after travel restrictions went into place.

In other words, if the Worobey analysis holds up—and he is a scientist who has built his career on similar genetic mapping of HIV and influenza outbreaks—most hard-hit nations got slammed with the coronavirus after travel restrictions were instituted and after WHO issued its PHEIC. And that includes the United States.

Nevertheless, tensions and blame have only escalated between the Trump and Xi governments, exacerbated by the National People’s Congress vote this week to revoke crucial aspects of Hong Kong’s freedoms and democracy. Both Democratic and Republican leaders in Washington have strongly condemned Beijing’s effective revocation of the 1997 U.K.-China pact guaranteeing the territory of Hong Kong relative independence until the middle of this century. And Chinese leaders have counterattacked in a war of COVID-19 words.

On May 28, the Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily labeled Trump’s domestic response to COVID-19 “incompetent” and the American death toll “one of the darkest moments in U.S. history.” Mincing no words, the editorial denounced Trump personally: “While there are many factors at play, a key factor behind the high numbers was the Trump administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. … America, the most powerful country on the planet with the most sophisticated medical technologies, did not have to lose so many lives to coronavirus. The Trump administration squandered vital time as the coronavirus spread across the country. … [T]he grim milestone is a failure of epic proportions on the part of the Trump administration.” The next day, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from WHO.

In all likelihood, Trump can’t legally pull the United States out of WHO without giving the agency a large amount of money and can’t unilaterally do so without a vote of approval from Congress, according to the global health legal expert Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University. Though the WHO constitution does spell out how a nation may withdraw, Phelan says, it is clear that a departing country must settle all its debts with the agency. And joining WHO required U.S. Senate ratification. Exiting would require Senate approval, payment of all debts, and a full year’s notice. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks such things, U.S. dues, which are assessed based on national GDPs, have ranged year by year between $107 million and $119 million over the last decade. In addition, the United States commits up to $400 million annually in voluntary support, making it the single largest donor to WHO. The 2020-2021 budget for WHO is $4.8 billion. The Trump administration has been a scofflaw, having never paid $81 million of its dues in 2019 and none of its $118 million for 2020. And $900 million in Obama administration commitments made for 2018-2019 have not been honored by the Trump White House.

If Trump can get over the congressional and financial hurdles, he still faces significant moral hazards. Most of the agency’s spending is on health programs for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. In addition to the loss of U.S. funds, WHO is facing a $1.3 billion shortfall in funds from other sources and cost overruns due to emergencies, including the Congolese Ebola epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Immunization programs worldwide, including the polio eradication effort, have suffered thanks to lockdowns and diversion of public health and medical personnel to the COVID-19 fight. On May 22, a host of international organizations, including WHO, warned that 80 million children under the age of 1 were at risk of acquiring measles, diphtheria, polio, and other vaccine-preventable diseases. With the United States withdrawing its financial support from WHO, those vaccination efforts will likely suffer further setbacks.

The U.N. estimates that 130 million people could sink backward into extreme poverty due to the pandemic’s impact on the global economy, creating further health needs. Malaria programs worldwide have been disrupted by supply chain issues and lockdowns, which have interrupted the delivery of mosquito nets, drugs, and testing equipment.

In addition to imperiling the lives of the poorest of the world’s poor, the United States is, by quitting WHO, sending more signals to the world that the Trump administration intends to go its own “America First” way in the coronavirus fight. But the rest of the world is hurriedly forming trade and research alliances, committing to working together to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. Some of these collective deals have been forced inside WHO; others are regional pacts—the Trump administration has joined none. While it is certainly possible the first effective vaccine is invented and developed by a U.S. company, it is at least equally likely the innovation will come out of China, Europe, Asia, or perhaps Latin America—and the American people might find themselves at the bottom of the list for access to the life-saving supplies because Trump opted out of all international agreements and cooperation.

“We need to be engaged with other countries for the benefit of people who spend their time in places like Detroit,” former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said this week. “This is not primarily a moral issue. This is a forward defense of our national security interests.”

Trump screwed up his tariff fight with China in 2019, forcing enormous subsidies for American farmers facing bankruptcy due to the loss of grain and livestock exports. When COVID-19 first appeared, Trump was trying to realign trade deals with China, so he confidently told a gathering of financial elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that China had the epidemic under control and that there was nothing to worry about. When it turned out that the epidemic was a pandemic, Trump issued the travel restrictions and assured Americans that there was nothing to worry about. As it became obvious that there most definitely was a great deal for Americans to worry about, amid national spread of the coronavirus and a wildly chaotic federal response, Trump blamed China. It didn’t take long for the U.S.-China blame game to grow toxic. Then the president added WHO onto his list of scapegoats.

The pain for this childish abhorrent behavior will now be felt on the COVID-19 battlefields and in every poor community that relies on U.N. agencies for emergency food, child immunizations, essential medicines, and guidance. Trump’s decision to punish others for his own failings is no surprise at this point in his presidency—and still completely reprehensible.

Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer. Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett

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