15 Apr 2020

Trump pulling WHO funding 'foolish' - Helen Clark

From Checkpoint, 5:21 pm on 15 April 2020

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark says US President Donald Trump's decision to pull funding from the World Health Organisation is "foolish". 

Trump is freezing contributions to the WHO for up to three months, pending a review of the organisation and what he describes as its mismanagement of the spread of Covid-19. 

He said the United States gives up to $US500 million ($NZ825m) a year to the organisation and he had deep concerns about whether that "generosity" was being put to the best possible use.

"I can't think of anything more foolish in the middle of a global pandemic which has gone beyond being a health crisis to being a full-blown economic and social crisis," Clark told Checkpoint

The UN Development Programme administrator said Trump had "no substantive point" in making the move based on his concerns about the organisation's management of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

"At the end of this ghastly matter… for sure the WHO will do a full review and lessons learned as it did after Ebola. And after Ebola where it had initially not responded well, a whole lot of new mechanisms were put in place, and that has put the WHO in a much better position this time to be handling the epidemic. 

"But this is a virus which we knew absolutely nothing about four months ago, almost nothing about three months ago, and everybody is scrambling to keep up. 

"So in a sense to defund and make accusations against WHO is to shoot the messenger, that's been trying to tell the world for several months, that this is serious, and countries need to prepare."

One of the issues Trump has raised is the lack of travel restriction advice from the WHO and the scrutiny of information from China. 

"Of course, he has half a point around the travel restrictions. WHO doesn't advise those, and I think one of its concerns is that countries might be less honest and transparent if they knew they were going to be, those sorts of consequences," Clark told Checkpoint. 

"Obviously New Zealand also moved by the end of January to stop people who were not New Zealand citizens or residents coming from China, or even transiting through China in the previous 14 days," she said.

"I understand the kind of sensitivities in the WHO around travel bans but countries like the US, New Zealand and many others have got on and put them on anyway. 

"On the issue of transparency, yes, of course, with an authoritarian society which doesn't operate the way the US does or New Zealand does - with our free and open media, and the ability to say what you want and raise whatever questions you want - things are different.

"And the reality is there was knowledge in Wuhan at least a month before the notification of the disease to the WHO. 

"I might say from my experience of dealing with China with such a critical issue, which was over the milk powder scandal back in 2008, our experience was that when we blew the whistle in Beijing, Beijing moved at the speed of lightning. 

"Down at the regional level they're not always so keen to tell Beijing about a problem. But if you go in at the top, Beijing can act very quickly, and my impression is that it may well be that the regional people withheld knowledge from Beijing, as well."

Helen Clark

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Clark said there could be a small number of countries who follow Trump's move. 

"But it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of countries are just going to say: 'Look let's not start blame games on WHO right now. Let's get in behind it as it endeavours to deal with the health aspects of this'." 

Regarding the United Nations' response to the pandemic, Clark said senior level coordination was not high enough. 

"There has been a crisis mechanism that was activated by WHO some weeks ago but it's at the Mike Ryan director level. What Dr David Nabarro - who used to advise Ban Ki-moon on pandemic response - has recommended is that the Secretary-General should convene a pandemic emergency coordination council.

"I think that should be a standing body to be activated whenever something like this arises.

"This is the sixth public health emergency of international concern since 2003. On average, these horrible events are going to come around every three years. 

"So a standing capacity, which would be the Secretary-General, the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and the Director-General of the WHO. 

"Their networks are huge - the IMF and World Bank - they have the ears of every finance minister in the world. 

"And what's going to release money now for a response that will fight the health aspects of the virus, and the economic crisis and social crisis, is the finance ministers."

Clark said another action the UN could make would be for the Secretary-General to go the Security Council to formally state the pandemic was a threat to global peace and security, and ask it to make a resolution to that effect. 

"Security Council resolutions are binding. If it says that, as it did with Ebola six years ago, and calls on all member states to use all necessary means to fight it, that really ups the ante for global coordination."

In her various roles, Clark has been a constant traveller around the world, but she is now enjoying lockdown in her own home and neighbourhood for a long period of time. She said she had not been home this long since she was leader of the Opposition.

"But the downside is I haven't been able to drive down and see my dad who is 98. I'm not going to the supermarket, Peter gets sent out on that errand. 

"But I am getting a lot done, and I think we're going to be looking at the way we work through this and thinking yes, we could do a lot through Zoom, Skype, Teams and these other mechanisms. Maybe we don't need to get on that plane.

"It is definitely not going to be the same. We're going to be using these platforms for connecting virtually a great deal more. I have major meetings coming up of international boards, for Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Partnership with Maternal Newborn Child Health.

"We're doing it in the way I'm talking to you now," Clark told Checkpoint's Lisa Owen. "And maybe we'll be doing that for a while, because until there's a vaccine, who of us can travel and get insurance?

"In busy lives, you don't really want to be coming back from a week-long meeting and sitting in a hotel at Mangere for two weeks, so we're going to have to get used to working like this."

Earlier today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand will not be following the US in halting funding to the World Health Organisation.

Ardern said the organisation had provided advice that can be relied on and New Zealand would continue to support it and make its contribution.

Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the global response to the pandemic will require a strong World Health Organisation.