India Indicates Trump’s WHO Fund Freeze Is Ill-Timed, as It Weighs the Tedros Equation

A difficult and delicate diplomatic situation lies before India as the US continues to rail against the WHO and its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Delhi: After US President Donald Trump announced that he was freezing funds to World Health Organisation due to its apparent failure in stopping the coronavirus pandemic, India on Wednesday noted that, with the world still in the midst of a full-blown outbreak, this was not the right time to assail the body.

Trump, who has been facing criticism over his initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak, has accused the World Health Organisation of going soft on China.

“Today I am instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus. Everybody knows what has gone on there,” he said, in remarks delivered at the White House’s Rose Garden.

He claimed that in mid-January, WHO had endorsed the Chinese authorities’ views that there was no human-to-human transmission, despite reports to the contrary.

“The WHO pushed China’s misinformation about the virus, saying it was not communicable, and there was no need for travel bans… The WHO’s reliance on China’s disclosures likely caused a 20-fold increase in cases worldwide, and it may be much more than that,” he said.

Trump also assailed the UN’s public health body for being unable to obtain virus samples from China. “Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China”s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained… with very little death…”

In New Delhi, the mood was that while the WHO requires reforms, the US president’s call to cut funds was ill-timed.

Also read: Donald Trump Stops US Funding to WHO, Blames it for COVID-19 Spread

“At present, our efforts and attention are fully focused on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the world has addressed this crisis, we can revisit this question,” said government sources. There was no official statement from the ministry of external affairs.

International condemnation

The international reaction has been similar, even from US allies and partners. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison commiserated with Trump, but said it was important to not “throw the baby out of with the bathwater here”.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas said that “blaming others won’t help”. “One of the best investments is to strengthen the UN, above all the under-funded WHO… in the development and distribution of tests and vaccines,” he tweeted.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borell stated that there was no justification for this decision at this moment.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres stated that this was “not the time” to reduce resources for the operations of WHO. “As I have said before, now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences,” he said.

Bill Gates, the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who are the top voluntary non-state contributor to the WHO, described the plan to halt freezing as “dangerous”.

China said that the decision would “weaken the WHO’s capabilities and undermine international cooperation”.

WHO’s finances

WHO’s budget is financed through two methods. The first is assessed contributions of member states, which is calculated based on a formula related to the country’s economy and population. The second method is through voluntary contributions, could be from countries or from private organisations.

Trump has been repeatedly stating that the US provided over $500 million as funds to the WHO last year, accounting for a major part of its budget. This is largely related to its voluntary contribution – which is tied to specific projects in various countries that are chosen based on national interest.

The US has, in fact, not paid up its assessed contributions since 2019 – and is estimated to owe an outstanding amount of over $200 million to the WHO.

India’s assessed contribution to WHO in 2020 stood at around Rs 31.4 crore ($4.1 million). While about $1.9 million has already been paid before January 1, another tranche that is to be paid in Swiss Francs will be submitted by the end of the financial year.

While Indian officials felt that the time for accountability is in the future, New Delhi may face a dilemma when the issue finally does come to the table.

The Tedros equation

The US administration and Republicans have personally targeted WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for allegedly deferring to China.

US Senate Republicans were already pushing for a wide-ranging investigation through Homeland Security and the Governmental Affairs Committee into the origin of coronavirus and WHO’s role. A letter from Senate Republicans to the WHO Director General called upon him to explain why he had praised China’s transparency during the crisis.

Also read: COVID-19: The Devil in the Data

White House Economic Adviser Peter Navarro even described Tedros as one of the “proxies” of the Chinese government that Beijing uses to gain influence over the UN government.

Politico had also reported that the US president’s top aides were working on a proposal to float an alternate to the World Health Organisation.

The increasing attacks on WHO and Tedros, and the announcement to freeze funds in Washington on Tuesday, occurs in the background of rising criticism over Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his initial dismissal of the seriousness of the outbreak.

With 607,000 cases, the US has the largest number of confirmed infection of COVID-19 in the world. As of Wednesday morning. At least 26,000 people have died across the country so far.

On January 24, Trump had praised Chinese President Xi Jinping on Twitter for China’s “transparency” in the fight to contain the spread of coronavirus.

But that wasn’t the only occasion. CNN reported that Trump had praised or projected confidence about China’s response to the pandemic at least 12 times in the month of February.

If the US decides to make Tedros a scapegoat and increase pressure, it will put India on the precipice of a difficult and delicate dilemma.

Indian diplomatic sources confirmed that India had not only voted in favour of the former Ethiopian foreign minister, but also actively campaigned for him in the successful election in May 2017. Tedros defeated UK’s David Nabarro by 133 votes to 50 in a closed-door session of health ministers.

Also read: Not Just COVID-19 Guidelines, Our Govt Would Do Well To Follow WHO’s ‘Life Skills’

While China had also been one of the key backers for Tedros, Indian officials pointed out that New Delhi’s assessment was led by the endorsement from the African Union. Elections at multilateral agencies are also about quid-pro-quo deals behind doors. Not surprisingly, the large bloc of African nations are an important component of India’s strategy to get elected at crucial bodies.

After his election, Tedros chose Soumya Swaminathan, the former director general of ICMR, as his Deputy Director-General for Programmes. She currently serves as WHO’s chief scientist.

During the current crisis, WHO officials have been quick to praise the Indian government’s policy to combat the pandemic. Tedros himself took to Twitter to praise the Modi government’s economic package for the economically backward section of the population during the national lockdown.

The assessment about WHO’s work has been that while Trump’s view about the world body may not be correct, the UN organisation has not been as effective as it could have been. They specifically point out the delay in the announcement of coronavirus as pandemic by the WHO. “It may be technically correct, but the delay did lead to many countries not taking effective steps to stop the spread, including travel restrictions,” said a senior government official.

During the G20 video conference, Modi had flagged reforms in the World Health Organisation as one of the key priorities. “WHO certainly needs reforms, but the time to push for it is later,” explained the official.

Tedros would most likely be looking for re-election once his current term ends in 2020. While he hasn’t yet announced his candidature, most director generals of the world body have had multiple terms. His predecessor, Margaret Chan of China, had held the position for a decade.

If Trump wins his re-election bid, Washington is not likely to look kindly at another term for Tedros in Geneva. This will certainly lead to New Delhi having to choose between supporting Washington or keeping African nations happy and not letting Beijing have a free rein in the continent.

For China, the attack on WHO and Tedros could not have come at a better time. Sino-African relations have been facing an unexpected crisis, with African countries making rare and public criticism of China for racial targeting of African nationals in Guangzhou, China for being carriers of coronavirus pandemic. There was even the unprecedented spectacle of the speaker of the Nigerian parliament giving a public dressing down to the Chinese ambassador.

African leaders had already been rallying to the support of Tedros over the last week, starting with African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. Representing the 55-nation association, Mahamat said that US government’s decision was “deeply regrettable”.