Washington/Sydney: US President Donald Trump on Tuesday halted funding to the World Health Organisation over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, drawing condemnation from infectious disease experts as the global death toll continued to mount.
Trump, who has reacted angrily to criticism of his administration’s response to the worst epidemic in a century, has become increasingly hostile towards the WHO.
The Geneva-based organisation had promoted China’s “disinformation” about the virus that likely led to a wider outbreak than otherwise would have occurred, Trump said.
“The WHO failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump told a White House news conference on Tuesday.
Nearly two million people globally have been infected and more than 124,000 have died since the disease emerged in China late last year, according to a Reuters tally.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it was not the time to reduce resources for the WHO.
“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 in a statement.
The United States is the biggest overall donor to the WHO, contributing more than $400 million in 2019, roughly 15% of its budget.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he sympathised with Trump’s criticisms of the WHO, especially its “unfathomable” support of re-opening China’s “wet markets”, where freshly slaughtered animals are sold and where the coronavirus first appeared in the city of Wuhan late last year.
“But that said, the WHO also as an organisation does a lot of important work including here in our region in the Pacific and we work closely with them,” Morrison told an Australian radio station on Wednesday.
“We are not going to throw the baby out of with the bathwater here, but they are also not immune from criticism and immune from doing things better.”
More than 2,200 died in the United States alone on Tuesday, a record toll according to a Reuters tally, even as the country debated how to reopen its economy.
New York City, the US city hardest hit by the pandemic, revised its death toll sharply up to more than 10,000 on Tuesday, to include victims presumed to have perished from the lung disease but never tested.
US health care advocacy group Protect Our Care said Trump’s WHO funding withdrawal was “a transparent attempt by President Trump to distract from his history downplaying the severity of the coronavirus crisis and his administration’s failure to prepare our nation,”
“To be sure, the World Health Organizstion is not without fault but it is beyond irresponsible to cut its funding at the height of a global pandemic,” said Leslie Dach, the chair of Protect Our Care.
‘Not seeing the peak yet’
After weeks of lockdowns in several European countries, the WHO said the number of new cases were tailing off in some areas, such as Italy and Spain, but outbreaks were growing in Britain and Turkey.
“The overall world outbreak – 90% of cases are coming from Europe and the United States of America. So we are certainly not seeing the peak yet,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a briefing in Geneva.
India extended a lockdown on its 1.3 billion people until at least May 3 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi said economic sacrifices were needed to save lives as the number of coronavirus cases exceeded 10,000.
New cases in mainland China dropped to 46, compared to 89 a day earlier, Chinese health officials reported on Wednesday, with one further death. Most cases were from overseas travellers returning from Russia.
Asian share markets edged higher as China moved again to cushion its economy, cutting a key medium-term interest rate to record lows and paving the way for a similar reduction in benchmark loan rates.
The global economy is expected to shrink by 3% this year, the International Monetary Fund said, marking the steepest downturn since the Great Depression.
Trump, who has declared he will decide when to lift US lockdowns, suggested some Democratic state governors were “mutineers” after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would refuse any order that risked reigniting the outbreak.
Trump’s top infectious disease adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the president’s May 1 target for restarting the economy was “overly optimistic”.
Airlines have been among the hardest hit as borders have closed and citizens have been told to stay at home to slow the spread.
Chinese airlines reported a total loss of $4.8 billion in the first quarter, the country’s aviation regulator said.
The US Treasury Department said major passenger airlines have agreed in principle to a $25 billion rescue package, ensuring airline workers have jobs until October while the industry battles its biggest-ever crisis.
In New Zealand, where a strict lockdown has limited the number of cases and deaths, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced she, her ministers and public service chief executives will take a 20% pay cut for the next six months given the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.