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The World Health Organisation has hit back at criticism from US president Donald Trump, after he threatened to stop funding the agency over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump said he was looking into putting “a hold on money sent to the WHO”, accusing the UN agency of being “very China-centric”. WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked not to politicise this virus.

What does the World Health Organization do?

  • Founded after World War II as part of the United Nations, the Geneva-based organization, which has about 7,000 workers spread over 150 offices worldwide, has no direct authority over member nations.
  • Instead, it is intended to be an international leader in public health by alerting the world to threats, fighting diseases, developing policy and improving access to care.
  • During emergencies like the coronavirus, the W.H.O. is meant to serve as a central coordinating body — guiding containment, declaring emergencies and making recommendations — with countries sharing information to help scientists address outbreaks.
  • The agency plays an advisory role in any major public health crisis, especially one with international dimensions. As in past outbreaks, it is helping coordinate research worldwide — this time, into drugs that can be used to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and into a potential vaccine. And it issues alerts and assessments of emerging and growing health threats, such as its designation, on March 11, of COVID-19 a pandemic.
  • But although the W.H.O. is broadly influential, it lacks meaningful enforcement authority and is under budgetary and political pressures, especially from powerful nations like the United States and China and private funders like the Gates Foundation.

Was WHO slow in alerting the world about COVID-19?

  • It took till about the middle of January for WHO to suggest human-to-human transmission of the virus, toeing the China line for the first few weeks of the year, as per reports.
  • The U.S. was formally notified by China on January 3 of the coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, as early as January 10 and 11, WHO had put out guidance notes on the virus.
  • China locked down the city of Wuhan on January 23. On January 23, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that while the emergency was for China and not for the world, it had the potential to become global in scale.
  • The body’s experts were divided on whether or not there was a global emergency at the time, as per reports, and it took until January 30 for them to conclude deliberations and declare a global emergency.

How much does the U.S. give WHO?

  • The U.S. is the WHO’s largest contributor. The organisation’s funding is of two types — assessments or member dues and voluntary contributions. The total funds for the 2020-2021 biennium included $957 million in assessments and $4.9 billion in voluntary contributions.
  • Over the last decade, the U.S.’s assessed contributions have been in the $107-$119 million range while voluntary contributions have been in the $102-$402 million range.
  • For the 2018 and 2019 biennium, the U.S. contributed about 20% of WHO’s budget.
  • This money went as assessment fees ($237 million) or pledges towards programmes (over $656 million) from voluntary contributions. The major share of the U.S. programmatic funding went towards polio eradication ($158 million), increasing access to essential health and human services ($100 million) and vaccine-preventable disease ($44 million)

Will the U.S. stand affect WHO’s functioning?

  • Funding freeze is highly likely to negatively impact WHO’s functioning for a short while at least, given the significant contribution the U.S. makes.
  • Additionally, it is unclear if Mr. Trump has the authority to withhold funding that has already been committed.
  • Tedros has asked countries to stop politicising the virus. He also said WHO regrets the U.S. decision and is reviewing the impact of American funds being withdrawn.