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On the day that China pledged $2 billion to the World Health Organization and announced the country’s coronavirus vaccines would be freely available to all, U.S. President Donald Trump declared war on the global health authority, threatening to withdraw permanently unless “major” changes are made.
He just forgot to mention what those changes should be.
In a four-page letter addressed to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — and posted on the president’s Twitter account late Monday night — Trump excoriated the organization for what he sees as a series of failures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading globally and for an “alarming lack of independence” from China.
Trump, who suspended U.S. funding for the WHO last month, said that without “major substantive improvements" to the way the organization operates in the next 30 days, the U.S. would make the funding withdrawal permanent, and “reconsider our membership in the organization” altogether.
Trump, who called the WHO a “puppet of China” earlier on Monday, did not outline what changes he wants the WHO to make.
Trump’s assertion that the WHO and China are to blame for the outbreak is widely seen as an attempt to deflect attention from his own administration’s failings to adequately deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The coronavirus has killed more than 90,000 Americans so far.
The attack on the WHO is also part of an escalating battle with China that some experts believe will end in a new Cold War between the two nations.
“I think the two countries are heading in the direction of a new cold war,” Tong Zhao, a China expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, told VICE News.
China, on the other hand, believes Trump’s accusations are simply a way to deflect criticism of his administration’s response to the pandemic.
“It is futile to try to mislead the public in this specious way, discredit China's prevention and control efforts, and shirk its own failure to prevent and control the pandemic,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said during a press conference Tuesday.
Trump’s letter includes a laundry list of criticisms of the WHO, many of which have been made previously by Trump or members of his administration. During a speech at the WHO's World Health Assembly meeting on Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar accused the organization of letting COVID-19 spin “out of control” at the cost of “many lives.”
In the letter, the president criticizes the WHO for praising China’s response to the outbreak, even though he himself was effusive in his praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping back in January, before the outbreak spread rapidly across the U.S.
Trump also compared Ghebreyesus negatively to Gro Harlem Brundtland, the WHO chief during the 2003 SARS outbreak, saying the current WHO chief could have saved "many lives" if he'd taken similar action, including imposing travel restrictions into and out of Wuhan, and being more critical of China.
The WHO has yet to respond to Trump’s letter, but it has in the past strongly denied accusations it failed to heed early warning signs about the threat of the coronavirus.
As the U.S. seeks to alienate itself from another global institution, China continues to fill the position once occupied by the U.S. during times of global crises.
On Monday, Xi spoke to the WHA meeting and pledged $2 billion to the WHO over the next two years to fight the pandemic. He also announced that any vaccines developed in China would be available for anyone to use.
Conversely, the U.S. is set to distance itself from a WHA resolution that will give poor countries the right to ignore patents in order to gain access to a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment, the Financial Times reported Tuesday.
But China experts see Beijing’s pledges of aid and financial support as a way for it to deflect criticism from its own failings in its early response to the coronavirus. Beijing silenced government critics and doctors who attempted to warn the public about the outbreak in Wuhan.
The WHO has backed a call from more than 120 of its members for an independent investigation into the origins of the outbreak, and while Xi also pledged support for the probe, he said Monday it should only be done when the pandemic is under control — which could take years.
Cover: President Donald Trump gestures as he leaves after a meeting with restaurant industry executives about the coronavirus response, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, May 18, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)