Once again, the World Health Organization finds itself in the crosshairs — the target of harsh criticism this week from President Trump. It is a position the global health agency has found itself in frequently.

Sometimes it has deserved criticism, as when it was slow to recognize the seriousness of the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014. But more often, it draws blame because it’s an easy target — an international body that seems to have more power than it actually does. In fact, its actions are guided by rules written by its member countries — including the United States.

On Tuesday the president threatened to put a hold on funding for the WHO, the UN agency leading the global health response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Trump’s rationale was a bit confusing. Earlier in the day on Twitter, the president criticized the WHO for advising against banning travel from China to try to stop spread of the virus. That was despite the fact that the U.S. ignored the WHO’s recommendation and closed its border to people who had been in China — excepting Americans — in late January.

Trump also said the WHO downplayed the outbreak, which is untrue. The agency exhorted countries starting in January to take an aggressive approach to finding cases of Covid-19 and trying to stop transmission of the coronavirus that causes the disease.

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It seems the agency is being set up as a scapegoat, caught in the political maelstrom surrounding the virus that has affecting every aspect of the U.S. response to this crisis.

Let’s take a look at some of the president’s claims.

Did the WHO publicly criticize the U.S. government for banning travel from China?

One of the core complaints the president leveled at the WHO is that it criticized his administration’s announcement on Jan. 31 that it was closing U.S. borders to foreign nationals who had been in China in the previous 14 days. (The ban did not apply to Americans in China, who streamed back to the United States.)

“They actually criticized and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it, and they were wrong,” Trump said Tuesday night during the White House’s daily briefing.

The record doesn’t bear the president’s claim out, however. Senior leaders of the WHO, including Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have been holding three-times weekly press briefings for several months now. They have not overtly criticized the United States — or any other country — for instituting travel bans.

They did, however, talk about how such bans exceed the bounds of the International Health Regulations 2005.

What, pray tell, are the International Health Regulations 2005?

The IHR, as they are generally referred to, is a legally binding set of rules designed to lower the world’s risk from infectious disease threats. The regulations were adopted by the World Health Assembly, the council of 194-member states that governs and directs the WHO. The modern IHR have their roots in the International Sanitary Regulations, which date back to the mid-1800s and were aimed at preventing the spread of cholera.

The IHR were updated in 2005, after the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003. The United States was one of the principal authors of the revised IHR, noted Jimmy Kolker, a longtime U.S. diplomat and former assistant secretary for global affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration.

Once more for emphasis: The U.S. government had a major hand in writing these rules.

What do the IHR do?

In short, they require countries to alert the global community — through the WHO — when they have disease outbreaks that could cross borders and threaten neighbors or the world at large.

In exchange, the IHR are meant to protect countries from being penalized for their openness, to remove the financial incentive to hide an outbreak. Unless the WHO recommends travel restrictions — which it has not done since the spring of 2003, during the SARS outbreak — other countries are supposed to refrain from imposing travel bans or trade restrictions on nations that are grappling with disease outbreaks.

The goal is to not discourage transparency.

“That’s the bargain at the heart of the revised IHR,” said Tom Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So the IHR say, “Don’t impose travel and trade restrictions.” Do countries observe that rule?

Nope. Countries often ignore that part of the IHR. During the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016, many countries stopped issuing visas to citizens of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, the countries engulfed in the crisis.

And many have closed borders in this outbreak as well. More than 100 have instituted travel bans of some sort, Bollyky said.

What does the WHO do when countries don’t follow the IHR?

There is almost nothing the WHO can do. Though the IHR are legally binding, the document has no teeth. There are no enforcement mechanisms that the WHO can exercise to bring a country into compliance. Nations are sovereign and will act in what they believe is the best interest of their citizens — a fact WHO senior leaders acknowledge publicly.

The WHO’s sole power is to “name and shame” — call out countries that are violating the IHR. But that is a tool the agency has been reluctant to use, Bollyky said. “They’ve taken a light touch on that.”

The IHR require the WHO to note when countries exceed recommended action — by imposing travel or trade restrictions, for instance. And the WHO must, under the regulations, approach each country that takes such actions and ask it to explain why it has done so.

Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies program, explained the requirement during a Covid-19 press briefing on Feb. 6: “The IHR does not deny or prevent, it doesn’t prevent a country from taking measures, but what it does is it requires the countries to justify the risk assessment and the value of the public health measures from their perspective,” Ryan said.

“Governments are in a very difficult position. They have a very fine balance to strike. And what we try to do is make that decision transparent and we share that justification with all of the other member states, so at least other member states see what that justification is,” he added.

The criticism of the WHO this time around is not unusual.

When the original SARS outbreak was stopped and transmission of the virus was extinguished, the WHO enjoyed a period of praise for its handling of that event.

But that good will was lost in the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, which turned out to be mild. Countries were on the hook to buy pandemic vaccine the public didn’t really want. While there’s no way to know at the start of a disease outbreak how deadly it’s going to be, critics armed with the 20/20 vision of hindsight were scathing about what was perceived to be an overreaction to a “meh” event.

A few years later the agency was slow to recognize the scale of the peril as Ebola started to transmit in West Africa, in countries with no experience containing it. Again, the consensus was the WHO had gotten it wrong.

With this outbreak, though the WHO has been in battle mode since the day after China first alerted it to the fact it was seeing some unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, the knives are out again.

The right-wing media in the United States — which for several months dismissed this new disease as not even as significant as seasonal flu — is now alleging the WHO downplayed the gravity of the situation and colluded with China — or “Communist China” more commonly — to keep the world from preparing for this crisis.

The agency has been threatened; Tedros, the first director general from Africa, has been subjected to racists attacks and has received death threats.

Some Republican lawmakers are insisting the U.S. should withhold its dues until Tedros, as he is known, is unseated and the WHO is investigated.

What does the WHO say?

During the agency’s Wednesday briefing, Tedros acknowledged the WHO’s response to the novel coronavirus had not been perfect. But he warned that politicizing the outbreak will result in more deaths.

This virus “exploits the differences you have at the national level. If you want to be exploited and you want to have many more body bags, then you [politicize the crisis],” he said. “This is not the one to use for politics. It’s like playing with fire.”

He argued that China and the United States need to demonstrate leadership and find a way to work together to combat the coronavirus. “The worst is yet to come if we don’t rush to ensure unity,” he said.

Andrew Joseph and Lev Facher contributed reporting.

  • Thank you Helen, for your comments on the Trump trample on WHO. Although, there are times when I wished the WHO DG was more assertive on certain issues, I agree that on this occasion he has acted with dignified responsibility and guided WHO in the right direction. H e also accepted that there was always room for improvement. He was accused of being too “parley-parley” with China and being “China-centric”. I think this is an unfair charge. H e and the WHO in respecting national rights and sovereignty could only base their assessment on what the country presents to him or the WHO delegation. Anything else would have required a combined CIA-FBI operation and regarded as covert interference in the affairs of the country. If indeed China was deceptive in providing actual details of the COVID19 situation, I think the WHO with information available to it CONSISTENTLY and LOUDLY warned countries about the seriousness of the situation by declaring the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30 January 2020.and later on March 11 2020 called it a pandemic. The US leadership obviously did not take the COVID19 issue seriously enough even after the first known case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was confirmed on January 20, 2020, in a returnee from Wuhan, China. The US leadership initially assumed that it was on top of the situation and got her response off to a slow start, even after the first case in a US person without a travel history was reported on February 26, 2020. Initially, the US response to the pandemic was dictated by Trump’s dismissive attitude over the impact of the outbreak, when on February 26 he said that the virus would disappear “like a miracle”, and that “nobody really knows” what would actually happen. If only he had updated himself on what COVID19 did in China, Italy, France and other countries and had listened to the call by WHO, he would have known that COVID19 will not disappear “like a miracle”, and that many people already knew what would actually happen. Now it has happened and with the U.S. having the most confirmed active cases in the world and ranking second (after Italy) in the number of total deaths from the virus, Trump must look for WHO, the scapegoat and the ‘whipping boy’ to blame for his monumental failure and poor leadership.
    I am delighted that Tedros by saying “……. 𝙙𝙤 𝙣𝙤𝙩 𝙥𝙤𝙡𝙞𝙩𝙞𝙘𝙞𝙯𝙚 𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙨 𝙫𝙞𝙧𝙪𝙨. 𝙄𝙛 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙘𝙖𝙧𝙚 𝙛𝙤𝙧 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙥𝙚𝙤𝙥𝙡𝙚, 𝙬𝙤𝙧𝙠 𝙖𝙘𝙧𝙤𝙨𝙨 𝙥𝙖𝙧𝙩𝙮 𝙡𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙨 𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙞𝙙𝙚𝙤𝙡𝙤𝙜𝙞𝙚𝙨” has responded appropriately not just to Trump but also especially to African countries that are yet to give COVID19 pandemic, the serious attention it deserves. It is important to particularly caution African countries where COVID19 is beginning its exponential race and raise in number of cases and deaths, to hear the words of Tedros “…. please don’t politicise this virus. It exploits the differences you have at the national level. If you do not want to have many more body bags, then you refrain from politicising it.”

    Oyewale TOMORI

    • Trump failed but so did the WHO. Reminder: Trump initiated his Task Force a day before the WHO called a global emergency. Also really funny that Teddy is gonna screech about politicization of the virus after calling Taiwan racist over it.

  • The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended last Friday that people should wear cloth face coverings in public settings, especially in areas with higher confirmed cases. This guidance comes in light of increasing evidence that some people with coronavirus don’t have symptoms, and that others can transmit the coronavirus even before their symptoms start to show up.
    Does anyone knows where do I get a N95 mask?

  • All that study regarding travel bans demonstrates is that the response was too late. The virus was already inside infecting people who were going to parades as suggested by many health ministers and commissioners who take their advise from the WHO. It’s simple logic here, if social distancing is effective than so is national distancing, aka travel bans and border shutdowns. The virus cannot magically spring from the aether if you lock out everyone infected.

    Now why was the response too late? That is the fault of nations trusting the WHO who were discouraging closing down travel and pedaling obvious distracting nonsense that there is no evidence of a virus not being infectious intra-species as though we need a study on the blatantly obvious. It’s a virus, of course it will be infectious and of course isolating a country from it will result in it not being there to infect anyone. It’s called the precautionary principle and it was not until January 30th, one day after Trump announced his Task Force, that the WHO finally called a global emergency. Until then they were reassuring everyone China had it under control with their constant praise. I’m sorry but the facts fly right int the face of the trash heap of an apologia you wrote. The fact is every health organization other than those in Taiwan have a lot to answer for. And coincidentally Taiwan is exempt from the WHO. The WHO failed miserably in their duty of care and should be put on trial.

  • The author is basing her analysis on her political bias. We need objective analysis not political diatribes.

  • I thought you had to go to sites like 4chan to find delusional conspiratorial far right wingers nuts. Instead, you can find plenty of them on STAT too!

    • Countries around the world are criticizing China, not just “right wing nuts”. I’m not sure why you think a comment that addresses nothing of the underlying issues would convince anybody of anything other than your own political myopia and inability to evaluate issues for what they are rather than through the prism of everything being “blue team – red team”. In short, your comment makes you seem a fool.

  • Seems to me everything you say underlines how hopeless WHO is and how tendentious their recommendations are.

  • This article is another example of a flaw of having the premise that one side must be right and the other wrong. In this case, because the Trump admin is deemed wrong and bad, the WHO must be defended. However, any fair reading of this unfolding disaster of a story would acknowledge that the Trump WH richly deserves criticism for the early downplaying contributing to the poor federal response AND that the WHO showed undue deference for the CCP, which cost the world precious time in pandemic preparation. Any fair telling of this story would reference the infamous January 14th WHO tweet ‘that Chinese officials report no clear signs of human to human transmission of nCoV-19’. Meanwhile, reporting since then has uncovered the true depths of the CCP cover-up of the extent of the virus, that they knew it was spreading in December, and they instead threatened and censored doctors sounding the alarm. Any fair telling of the story would acknowledge warnings of community spread of the virus by Taiwanese doctors in late December, ignored by the WHO because they let the CCP and its One China policy dictate who they can receive valuable information from. Then of course Dr. Tedros showering the CCP with praise on January 30th literally a week after the Wuhan/Hubei lockdown that can now be seen as a last ditch effort to contain a situation that had spiraled completely of control and Dr. Tedros bowing to Chinese pressure not to declare a global public health emergency. It’s disingenuous to claim that the WHO didn’t do poorly because they were urging nations to prepare in January when their own actions, at the behest of China, contributed to a downplaying or a confusion about the threat. The WHO uncritically accepted what are now clearly comically low undercounts of cases and fatalities in China. There were already studies being done to project the true number of cases in China but the WHO persuaded the world to accept China’s lies as fact. China ultimately deserves the blame for the disaster it wrought upon the world by failing to respond to the spread of the virus and instead covering it up, but the WHO does not deserve the benefit of the doubt you so clearly want to give it. It does no good to hide behind the IHR stuff and to portray them as the innocent bystander victims. How many lives could have been saved globally if the WHO pressured China to reveal the true extent of the cases and deaths there, instead of catering to the CCP’s wishes and being part of the propaganda effort to paint China as the transparent good guy in this whole nightmare. You clearly aren’t interested in telling the whole story.

    • Thanks Richard for the detail. It’s unfortunate that the far left, like Drug Cszar, can’t post anything but ‘Orange Man Bad’.
      Remember the January 20, 2020 Democrat press conference about trying to block a presidents constitutional right to restrict travel to and from other countries? Or on January 27th, Nancy Pelosi threatening to bring the No Ban Act to the floor of the House for a vote?
      No only were international bodies threatening lives for political points, it was happening here at home.

  • “The risk to the American people remains very low.” – “It’s just one person coming in from China.” – “The coronavirus is no worse than the flu.” – The outbreak “will get down to almost zero.” – Donald Trump. My 14 year old and I survived COVID-19, I was asymptomatic, but my son had to go to the ER. I have to say, in Trump’s defense, it’s probably really hard to pretend you care about people who because of their vulnerabilities, comobidities, age, gender…have to go and die from this virus, thus, hurting his electability. I mean, he just wants to win, even if our health is at stake, but we don’t care his cray cray is just too much fun to watch!

    • Ridiculous to claim that Trumps response was too slow. He shut travel from China to/from America quickly. His only error was not blocking travel from Europe first, as based upon the evidence of NYCs troubles being mostly European in nature, not Asian.

      And I guess Trump was supposed to raise the alarms and lock up a free society when we/he didnt know what was occurring and how desperate things were getting in China – thank you, XI and Tedros and their lying. But lets blame our president instead of the globalists!!!

  • That was a long time ago, before Xi and China infiltrated WHO as another arm of their propaganda machine. Even Australia wasn’t trusting WHO early on because it was just promulgating a disinformation campaign to make China look good.

  • I’m not sure why Stat has picked this hill to die on. You continue writing as if Trump is the only one criticizing the WHO, when in fact other countries such as the UK and Japan have been equally critical of their China-centric response. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and Trump is right to be critical here. You do your anti-Trump agenda no good in complaining about him being right.

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