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WHO messed up pandemic response, but Trump threats are misguided

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  • President Trump is once again attacking the World Health Organization.
  • While the WHO did make mistakes in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the attacks are counterproductive.
  • Trump should stick with the WHO and focus on his own response instead of attacking theirs.
  • A version of this post first appeared in “Insider Today,” a daily email written by Henry Blodget and David Plotz. To receive it in your inbox, please sign up here.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The president is lashing out again at WHO for its pandemic response.

The United States, Trump says, will continue to withhold funds from WHO, and may even pull out of the organization. President Trump also rejected an invitation to address the World Health Assembly — the conference charting WHO’s pandemic response — and called the UN’s health organization a “puppet of China.” 

China’s President Xi Jinping gladly took the opportunity to give the speech Trump wouldn’t, announcing $2 billion in extra health aid to struggling countries, twice what the US was paying WHO. 

Does the health of the World Health Organization even matter? President Trump loathes all international organizations, which he sees impinging on American autonomy. He sees it as a convenient scapegoat for his own lousy coronavirus response. And he’s right that the WHO probably did make mistakes with the coronavirus, and probably was too credulous when China downplayed the disease.

Put it another way: The WHO screwed up — just like the US screwed up. The WHO responded slowly, just like the US responded slowly. The WHO believed China, just like President Trump believed China.)

But the showdown over WHO is important. In this essential new essay for Vox, Ezra Klein argues that the job of the American president is to reduce risk — to lower the possibility of an existential war, a recession, a pandemic, a climate catastrophe.

But in Trump, we have a president who doesn’t think about risk management, and has thus taken actions that put us closer to avoidable disasters — everything from nuclear brinksmanship with North Korea and Iran to withdrawing from the Paris climate accords. 

The spat with WHO is a stellar, scary example of this phenomenon. WHO is a cumbersome bureaucracy that hasn’t shined during the pandemic. But it’s also the organization best equipped to deliver vaccines and medicine globally and track the outbreak. The stronger WHO is, the more likely it is that the world will control the virus sooner. So every effort we make to weaken WHO raises the risk of a longer pandemic, and more global economic instability.

That goal of harming WHO might make more sense if it helped the US achieve some other, more important strategic purpose. But if the goal was weakening China, it has done the opposite. Our absence has given China a bigger platform and more international prestige. And it has annoyed our allies, which put us in a strategically weaker position.

We’re doing all this damage — damage to US prestige, damage to world health, damage to the international order — for the tiniest and pettiest of reasons, so that President Trump can distract from his own poor COVID-19 response, and look tough for his core supporters. 

Is that what a president should be doing during the biggest catastrophe of his lifetime? 

A version of this post first appeared in “Insider Today,” a daily email written by Henry Blodget and David Plotz. To receive it in your inbox, please sign up here.

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