President Trump’s announcement on Friday that the United States will cut ties with the World Health Organization was, he said, aimed at punishing China, which he claimed influenced the WHO to “mislead the world” about the Covid-19 pandemic. Cutting ties with the WHO is exactly the wrong move, at the wrong time. It adds fuel to the public health fire we have been collectively dealing with over the past several months.
The president’s announcement came just a few days after the U.S. had passed the 100,000 mark in Covid-19 deaths. The road to this grim milestone was paved with failures at the federal level to adequately prepare for such a crisis by underfunding the public health organizations tasked with pandemic response followed by the administration’s slipshod efforts to quickly deal with the outbreak when it reached the U.S.
It is unclear how much the president can unilaterally do to follow through on his announcement. There has already been some bipartisan pushback against his decision, and Congress has ultimate sway over federal spending. Since the U.S. has provided about 15 percent of the WHO’s budget, as well as significant technical and political support, its withdrawal from this relationship would be a severe setback for the WHO’s ability to pursue its mission at a time when it has never been more critical.
The president’s choice to reject this mission is shortsighted at best and, at worst, willfully destructive. It places global public health at needless risk and leaves us vulnerable to the next pandemic. It helps ensure that when the next virus comes — and we know it will, just like we knew we would one day face something like Covid-19 — the conditions will be ripe for it to be even worse than the present challenge.
Withdrawing from international organizations like the WHO now, and in general, is precisely the wrong approach. Covid-19 has been a reminder of how health is linked person to person, group to group, and country to country. Staying healthy means recognizing that health takes cooperation at the local, national, and global levels.
The experience of quarantine, for example, is a microcosm of this. It has shown how much health depends on working together, on coordinating with the people within our networks toward the goal of staying disease-free. It has taught us that when health is at stake, no one can afford to go it alone. This is a lesson that everyone weathering the lockdown with family, friends, or roommates is familiar with. Navigating the last three months has required a process of collaboration to ensure everyone under the same roof takes actions that maximize health. While this process is not without moments of tension, the alternative — in which some people observe physical distancing while others take risks that expose the group — would provide a far less solid basis for health.
The same is true for the global community. In an age where a virus can spread in a matter of weeks from a one seemingly isolated locality to nearly everywhere on earth, international coordination is necessary to safeguard health. This coordination depends on global organizations like the WHO, which can help guide actions, deploy resources, and engage experts toward the goal of improving health for all.
We need this kind of integrated work now more than ever. Now is the time to lay the foundation for a world where threats like Covid-19 can no longer take hold, where the health disparities the disease exploited in order to spread no longer exist. Creating such a world means addressing health at the structural level, engaging with the social, economic, environmental, and political forces that shape vulnerability to disease. This will take international cooperation. Public health professionals need to work across national boundaries, sharing science and collaborating on actions that benefit not just one country or region but the global community.
Throughout its history, the WHO has been an invaluable resource for these efforts. It was founded in 1948, a few years after the end of World War II, when the world experienced what can happen when nations lose sight of their fundamental interconnectedness. In the years since, the organization has played a key role in shaping a healthier world, helping to eradicate smallpox and address challenges like HIV/AIDS and Ebola. It will continue to lead these efforts, supported by a global network of public health professionals.
In a statement, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, of which I am chair of the Board of Directors, reaffirmed that the American academic public health community will continue to engage with the WHO regardless of this country’s official membership status.
It would be a shame to see the U.S. abdicate its role in this important work, after everything it has done to give it such reach. We should not be playing politics with global health.
Sandro Galea is a physician, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, and chair of the Board of Directors of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health.