Biden Re-Engages With WHO Without Pressing for Reforms First

By Patrick Goodenough | January 22, 2021 | 4:23am EST
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is seen behind a sign of the WHO logo in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is seen behind a sign of the WHO logo in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

( – As the Biden administration marked the U.S. return to the World Health Organization on Thursday, some conservative critics said it had squandered leverage by not linking re-engagement to critically-needed reforms at the U.N. health agency.

Chief medical adviser to the president Anthony Fauci addressed the WHO’s executive board meeting remotely, confirming President Joe Biden’s decision to reverse his predecessor’s withdrawal, and saying that the U.S. “intends to fulfill its financial obligations to the organization.”

Fauci thanked the WHO “for its role in leading the global public health response to this pandemic,” praising it for having “relentlessly worked with nations in their fight against COVID-19.”

He also referred to the need to “strengthen and, importantly, to reform” the agency, and his ten-minute speech included one allusion to concerns about China’s early handling of the outbreak, which emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

“We are committed to transparency, including those events surrounding the early days of the pandemic,” Fauci said. “It is imperative that we learn and build upon important lessons about how future pandemic events can be averted. The international investigation should be robust and clear, and we look forward to evaluating it.”

The Trump administration was highly critical of Beijing’s actions early on. Dissatisfaction with the way the WHO dealt with China over that period and beyond prompted President Trump’s announced intention to withdraw.

Trump accused China of having tried to cover up the COVID-19 outbreak, and the WHO of being overly deferential to China rather than pressing it to be cooperative and transparent.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus enthusiastically praised Beijing’s handling of the outbreak, although WHO officials repeatedly denied claims of inappropriate dealing with China. (WHO recordings leaked later revealed deep frustration among its senior officials – behind closed doors – over China’s lack of cooperation.)

Trump last April announced a temporary suspension in U.S. funding pending a review. In a May 18 letter to Tedros he gave the WHO 30 days to make reforms or risk losing U.S. funding permanently. Throwing out his own timeline, he then announced just 11 days later that the U.S. would be leaving WHO and redirecting funding “to other worldwide and deserving urgent, global public health needs.”

Biden quickly pledged to reverse the move as president, and has wasted no time doing so, sending a letter to that effect to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres within hours of his inauguration, and dispatching Fauci to address the executive board meeting.

“Who sent him in there in such a demeaning way?” Fox News Primetime host Brian Kilmeade wondered on Thursday. “Why didn’t he come in there with guns blazing, and say, ‘I’m back, but things are going to change’?”

His guest, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), charged that “the WHO has consistently aided and abetted China in covering up the origins of this virus.”

“Having the United States rejoin the World Health Organization without it undergoing serious reforms is foolish,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), ranking member on the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “Until the WHO undergoes much needed reforms, American taxpayers should not subsidize an organization that has acted as Communist China’s propaganda outlet at every turn.”

Republican Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) agreed.

“The WHO shielded China from accountability for lying to the world and trying to cover up the origins of the coronavirus,” he said. “No organization should receive American taxpayer dollars that refuses to tell the truth and is unaccountable to the nations it serves.”

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) announced he was introducing legislation designed to prevent U.S. taxpayers from having to fund the WHO.

The U.S. has been its largest contributor since the agency was founded in 1948, not only in annual assessed contributions paid by every member-state, but also in the significantly larger area of voluntary funding.

‘A useful means to leverage reform’

Biden’s decision was applauded by Senate Democrats, with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) saying he was “signaling to the world that America is back and ready to lead again.”

“It was foolhardy for Trump to withdraw from the World Health Organization in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “Countries need to work together to stop the spread. Glad common sense has returned and the Biden Administration is restoring American participation and leadership.”

In a commentary, Heritage Foundation senior fellow Brett Schaefer said Biden should have seen the issue “as a useful means to leverage reform of the WHO.”

“Trump was correct in his criticism of the WHO,” he wrote. “Had China been more transparent and cooperative, many lives could have been saved and economic damage avoided in the U.S. and around the world.”

But Biden has placed no conditions on the decision to restore U.S. membership and funding.

“Biden should have made clear that the U.S. expects better of the WHO and secured commitments from other governments on reforms prior to announcing his decision to renew funding and rejoin the WHO,” Schaefer argued.

“With the decision to reengage made, look for the WHO – and member states like China that oppose reform – to pocket U.S. ‘partnership’ and money, and slow walk reform,” he predicted. “The world deserves a WHO that is accountable and effective. By failing to tie U.S. membership and funding to reform, Biden squandered key leverage and made this outcome less likely.”


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