Coronavirus: Bill Gates defends WHO from Trump, gives $11m

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 27 April – 30 April

By Nicholas Norbrook

Posted on Tuesday, 28 April 2020 10:22
WHO coronavirus Outbreak
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP

Under criticism for his handling of the Covid-19 outbreak at home, US President Donald Trump lashed out.

In a 7 April briefing, Trump said the WHO “could have called it months earlier. They would have known, and they should have known, and they probably did know, so we’ll be looking into that very carefully.”

Trump has repeatedly spoken of the ‘China virus’, and his surrogates have linked China’s support of the Ethiopian regime to the fact that the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is himself Ethiopian.

READ MORE ‘Coronavirus will cost far more than $3 trillion’ – Bill Gates

“Director General Tedros is a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party”, said Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, linking the ascent of Tedros to China’s backing.

Having ‘paused’ US funding for the UN agency, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo warned on 23 April that it might never be restored.

READ MORE WHO’s Tedros: ‘Don’t abandon the poorest to coronavirus’

Gates has been quick to defend the WHO, tweeting, “Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds”, much to the ire of Trump’s online legions.

“The WHO actually has a fairly modest budget. Its budget isn’t a thousandth of what is spent on healthcare in the United States”, Gates told The Africa Report in an interview.

“So sometimes people expect it has capabilities beyond what it’s actually funded to do”, says Gates. “Some people think [the] WHO is funded to make new drugs, vaccines, and it’s not at all, it’s actually got a pretty modest staffing level.”

He points out that the WHO is the only platform where a global pandemic can be debated, understood, and where evidence and information can be shared. Gates also has little time for criticising China’s response, calling it ‘a distraction’.

Tedros has support from China, but also from previous critics in the US. “He coaxed China into letting a small team of WHO (experts) on the ground in China, which was no easy task,” Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law told USA Today.

And, of course, Tedros has stuck up for himself. In a robust defense, WHO Secretary-General Tedros warned that there would be ‘many more body bags’ if the crisis was politicised.

  • Trump is facing unpromising polling in several swings states like Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania ahead of his 4 November electoral clash with Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Gates says the WHO are playing a crucial role in this pandemic. “I’m sure when we go back into the retrospective, it’ll be easy to say they should have done this sooner or this differently, but I think [the WHO] are playing a sort of neutral role, and if anything, they need more resources to step up to that”, he says. “So I’m hopeful that the US criticism won’t actually result in less dollars going to the WHO because we need them now more than ever, and they’re stepping up and being very helpful.”

On Friday 24th, Tedros co-hosted an event to launch the ‘Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator’ — a collaboration between multiple global institutions to develop “innovative COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines are needed – in record time and at record scale and access – to save millions of lives and countless trillions of dollars, and to return the world to a sense of ‘normalcy’”.

“Developing a Covid-19 vaccine has been accelerated because of previous work AHO and partners have done over several years on vaccines for other coronaviruses including SARS and MERS”, said Tedros in a press conference.

READ MORE Africa needs more health data to improve response to health crises

Linking the peace that broke out after the second world war to the institutional architecture that was set up in the post-war period, Gates says, “that’s when the World Health Organisation got built, during the times where the US viewed its global role as a priority and was viewed as being not being selfish about that role. That helped a lot.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of around $40bn, has given $250m to fight Covid-19.

A Gates Foundation spokesperson says:

  • “As of mid-April, the foundation has provided WHO approximately $11 million for its actions on Covid-19, which is being used to support WHO’s global preparedness and response efforts; its corresponding regional efforts for Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and South-East Asia; its expansion of respiratory disease surveillance in low- and middle-income countries in these three regions; and its work to address market failures in diagnostics, personal protective equipment, and oxygen-related clinical supplies”.

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