The coronavirus pandemic has reached another grave milestone, with worldwide cases exceeding two million – the majority of those in the US.
New York remains the COVID-19 epicentre, leading Governor Andrew Cuomo to enforce early Thursday (Australian time) that residents be required to wear masks in busy public places.
But at a time when leaders and health experts are calling for unity in the “war” on the virus, the World Health Organisation is instead spending time and resources scrambling to prove its worth after US President Donald Trump sensationally froze US funding.
WHO leader Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was holding out hope Mr Trump would reverse the decision as he used a media conference to reveal progress on studies into new vaccines.
In acknowledging the US had been “a long-standing and generous friend to WHO”, Dr Ghebreyesus said: “We hope it will continue to be so”.
While certainly not the only leader to criticise the WHO’s response to the pandemic, Mr Trump has been widely slammed for deciding to deprive the organisation of its biggest funding source in the middle of a global crisis.
Critics have also pointed out the President’s announcement might have been designed to deflect attention from his own administration’s failings.
Mr Trump argued on Wednesday that before calling a pandemic the WHO was too quick to believe information provided by Beijing about the flu-like illness impacting residents in China.
Earlier, he claimed WHO was “China-centric” and “pushed China’s misinformation”.
But a quick search of his busy Twitter feed shows that in late January it was Mr Trump who was also talking up China’s response and “transparency” over COVID-19.
The New York Times pointed out that his praise for Beijing came at a time the US was negotiating a trade deal with China.
China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2020
WHO takes a hit but is persevering with vaccine trials
Dr Ghebreyesus also announced that three clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine were underway.
More than 70 other potential vaccines were in development, he said, adding that the WHO was actively working to accelerate their “development, production and distribution”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it was not the time to reduce resources for the WHO.
“The World Health Organisation must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19,” he said.
Dr Ghebreyesus also reminded people that WHO was busy “working to address polio, measles, malaria, Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis, malnutrition, cancer, diabetes, mental health and many other diseases and conditions”.
"That creed remains our vision today.
The 🇺🇸 has been a longstanding and generous friend to WHO, and we hope it will continue to be so.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) April 15, 2020
Around the world, leaders have been gobsmacked by the US’s decision to freeze WHO funding. It comes at a time Mr Trump is presiding over the worst-hit region.
New York had 752 coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours, for a total of more than 11,000 in just over a month. Across the US, the coronavirus has killed more than 30,000 people.
Mr Cuomo said New York residents would be required to wear face coverings on busy streets, public transit or anywhere where they could not maintain two metres of distance.
The order takes effect on Friday, the governor said. Masks and cloth covers such as bandanas will work.
What led to Trump’s decision to halt WHO funding?
Mr Trump has reacted angrily to accusations his administration’s response to the worst global health crisis in a century was haphazard and too slow.
He had become increasingly hostile towards the UN agency before announcing the halt on Tuesday.
Mr Trump argued the WHO, which is based in Geneva, had promoted China’s “disinformation” about the virus that likely led to a wider outbreak than otherwise would have occurred.
He also claimed it had failed to investigate credible reports from sources in China’s Wuhan province, where the virus was first identified in December, that conflicted with Beijing’s accounts about the spread and “parroted and publicly endorsed” the idea that human to human transmission was not happening.
The US has been the leading contributor of funds to the WHO. In 2019, it gave more than $US400 million ($A632 million), equating to just under 15 per cent of the organisation’s budget.
World blasts Trump’s move
China has joined other nations in urging the US to fulfil its obligations to the WHO.
“This decision weakens the WHO’s capability and harms international cooperation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Twitter: “Deeply regret US decision to suspend funding to WHO. There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said apportioning blame did not help. “The virus knows no borders,” Mr Maas said on Twitter.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the WHO was essential to tackling the pandemic.
“At a time like this when we need to be sharing information and we need to have advice we can rely on, the WHO has provided that,” she said.
“We will continue to support it and continue to make our contributions.”
In Australian, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he sympathised with criticisms of the WHO, especially its “unfathomable” support of re-opening China’s “wet markets”, where freshly slaughtered, and live, animals are sold.
“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,” Mr Morrison said on Wednesday.
“We are not going to throw the baby out of with the bathwater here, but they are also not immune from criticism.”