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Top Democrat gives Trump administration deadline to explain WHO funding cut

Foreign Affairs committee chairman says White House has failed to adequately explain funding cut, calling Trump's response to pandemic 'calamitous'
'Cutting the WHO’s funding while the world confronts the Covid-19 tragedy is not the answer,' Eliot Engel said in a letter to Mike Pompeo (AFP/File photo)
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The chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs has launched an inquiry into President Donald Trump's decision to withhold funding from the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Chairman Eliot Engel said his committee is determined to understand the reasons behind the US's "self-defeating withdrawal" from the WHO, in a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday.

Serving the State Department with a list of 11 questions that seek to shed light on the motivations behind the funding withdrawal, Engel gave the department a 4 May deadline to provide the House committee with answers. 

Trump announced at a news conference on 14 April that he was instructing his administration to halt Washington's $400m annual payments to the WHO, pending a review. The US President has claimed the organisation is guilty of "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus".

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In his letter on Monday, Engel acknowledged that the WHO had "made mistakes" during the Covid-19 pandemic, but said that realisation should have led the US to "support reforms to strengthen the organisation", instead of abandoning it. 

"Certainly, cutting the WHO’s funding while the world confronts the Covid-19 tragedy is not the answer," Engel said. 

The chairman said that during the coronavirus crisis, the WHO has played "an essential role coordinating among governments around the world", pointing out that it was quick to declare the spread of Covid-19 a health emergency and a pandemic. 

"The [Trump] administration’s response, on the other hand, has been calamitous," he said. 

With at least 56,000 people dead in the US, infections in the country make up around a third of the world's nearly 3 million Covid-19 cases. 

"Diplomatic, development, and global health professionals have warned that cutting the WHO’s funding at this time will only hurt the global response" to the coronavirus, Engel said.

The chairman said recent attempts to understand the move in Congress were met with "a one-page talking points 'fact sheet'" from the Trump administration that he said contained "few facts, no plan, and no explanation of how suspending funds for the WHO will save lives here at home or around the world".

'Critically under-equipped'

Aid organisations have warned that Trump's move to cut funding to the WHO may risk exacerbating global humanitarian crises, particularly those in Yemen and Syria. 

Both countries have been devastated by years of war and lack much of the vital infrastructure that would be needed to tackle the virus.

A UN report released earlier this month said that more than 14 million people in Yemen lack access to basic hand-washing facilities.

Yemen has also been struck with a cholera outbreak, killing more than 2,500 people since April 2017. The WHO has said about 1.2 million suspected cases of cholera have been reported in the country.

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Xavier Joubert, country director for Save the Children in Yemen, said the country was "critically under-equipped" to face the pandemic, adding that only half of Yemen's health facilities are still fully functional.  

Similar concerns have been raised about Syria, where large chunks of the country remain in ruins and under competing spheres of influence.

“Cuts in funding to the World Health Organisation could have a devastating effect in Syria, as it plays a crucial role [in] preventing and responding to Covid-19 across the country," Matthew Hemsley, Oxfam’s policy adviser in Syria told Middle East Eye earlier this month. 

Hemsley said the WHO's efforts have been especially vital in bringing in testing kits and other vital medical supplies "which can be very challenging to import into Syria due to international sanctions". 

"A cut to their funding and operations in Syria could leave already-vulnerable communities without adequate health care and medical facilities while they are at even greater risk during this pandemic," he said. 

The US seat on the WHO Executive Board has remained vacant since 2018, in what House Democrats on the Foreign Affairs Committee last week called "an astonishing abdication of American leadership at a time of international crisis".

"Halting funding to the WHO at this time is like cutting funding to the fire department in the middle of a blaze," the legislators wrote in a letter to President Trump. 

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