Throwing the Mustard Pot at the WHO

In the midst of the restlessness of people defying the coronavirus lock-down here in France, there was a report of a group of teenagers caught by the police for flaunting the lock-down order. They had reportedly gathered in an alley in the town of St. Etienne for a barbecue party. The fleeing youth apparently tried to distract the gendarmes, who had, of course, caught wind of their burgers on the grill, by throwing a pot of mustard at them. I thought to myself, aha, just like the bizarre President Donald Trump – throwing mustard at the World Health Organization (WHO) to distract the world from his own flaunting of the pandemic! What an absolute farce this man has become! (Or always was, for that matter, but this being the only and most egregious CURRENT example of his malevolent psyche.) And here he is doing even more damage!

At the end of March, I wrote about the gradual but horrifying revelation of the pandemic, which I will always think of as the March Madness of 2020. The numbers are shocking – from 100 cases and one death in France at the beginning of March, we now have 143,303 cases and 15,729 deaths as of 15 April. Globally, the number has now passed 2 million cases and almost as many deaths globally as there have been cases in France. But these are only current numbers in a dizzyingly upward spiral. For most of us, though, the impact of the pandemic has been to instill fear and to abide by the stay-in-place orders to evade contagion and stay healthy. We ask ourselves and the experts out there, how long will this take before we can breathe freely? And WHAT will it take?

OK, fair enough, we ARE doing all those things – staying at home, wearing a home-made mask and rubber gloves and keeping a safe distance from others when we do have to go out for groceries, scrubbing down our groceries when we do bring them home, washing our hands regularly and thoroughly – all of that. We are also supporting all those health care and other essential service workers who are courageously operating on the front lines to isolate and care for those who are infected – and thereby keeping us safe. We understand that global cooperation is in fact taking place on the research, testing and development of vaccines and treatments but that no timeline is yet certain for their effectiveness and availability. We are following those data algorithms that are being applied to models that are projecting the prospects for flattening and slowing those awful curves.

So along comes this pot of mustard! Ouch! What an embarrassment to see this horrible man flail in his lack of guilt for what he has and has not done by suspending all American funds going to the WHO. This comes only a day after President Emmanuel Macron had announced a target date of 11 May for phasing out some aspects of the lock-down in France. There may be plenty of worries about the wisdom of this new timeline in France. One worry that directly affects us is President Macron’s affirmation that the lock-down will remain in place indefinitely for those of us who are in the high-risk categories – i.e. specifically those of us over the age of 70 but also presumably those with related health problems like diabetes or cancer or heart disease, etc.

For this, then, we have a double whammy. No foreseeable end to our living in isolation – even the head of the EU Commission intimated that this would at least continue for all of the EU to the end of the year! And now a mustard pot thrown at the WHO instead of a honey pot! We are truly dismayed.

Looking for any immediate pushback, we at least see that Bill Gates’s immediate reaction was that Donald Trump’s decision is as “dangerous as it sounds”! No other organization, he said, can replace the work that is being done by the WHO during this world health crisis. Our friend and colleague, Dr. David Nabarro, a long-time critic of the WHO in years past but who has recently accepted a WHO appointment as a special envoy on the coronavirus pandemic, described it thus: Public health professionals around the world are looking to the WHO as the “direction finder”. The WHO is where the latest information on this rapidly changing pandemic is being gathered and disseminated. It is also facilitating coordination and information-sharing on vaccine and treatment efforts.

Does this dangerous decision by Trump mean a crumbling of the WHO and its coordinating role? As we know, the US has been the largest contributor to the budget of the WHO (followed, by the way, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in second place). Financially, though, this 15% American share is not in itself going to destroy the WHO. There are parallels in other UN agencies – the US withdrawal from the International Labor Organization in the 1970s, for example, and more recent examples of US withdrawals from UNESCO or the UN Human Rights Council. They all continued to operate and have survived these American withdrawals or boycotts.

What is different in this immediate situation is the damage coming from the absence of US leadership, whether at the WHO and the UN at large or in the crisis-management of the G7 and G20. We hear that Emmanuel Macron continues to be the lone Western voice for multi-lateralism, even upstaging President Trump by calling for an emergency tele-convening of the G7. And we know that others will quickly step in to cover any stop-gap funding that the WHO needs to continue its “direction finder” role in this crisis. But this lack of leadership from the US is alarming for the WHO because this is where the US needs to be channeling its expertise and its ingenuity as well as its resources. A destructive President is destroying these very channels.

Furthermore, and at the risk of falling prey to the thrower of the mustard pot, the longer-term implications of this Trumpean tantrum is for the Chinese to get away with its efforts to take over the barbecue grills of the UN system. Here is a country of billions, a behemoth in the supply chains of the global economy, with an increasingly authoritarian, anti-democratic political system. Its diplomatic gaffes as its diplomats seek to promote its power in this Covid-19 crisis by provoking anti-American and anti-European sentiments have even stirred protests from the French. And this most recent suspension of American resources to the WHO may actually open up more scrutiny of the apparent cover-up and mistakes by the Chinese at the beginning of this outbreak. But challenging Chinese behavior regarding the early stages of what has become a pandemic by disparaging the WHO’s handling of the Chinese developments is more than the throw of a mustard pot to distract us from President Trump’s own blunders. It risks the dismantling of the WHO itself.

It would be painful if this scrutiny displaced and delayed even further the need for global collaboration at the WHO in this time of crisis, and even more painful if it ends up being manipulated by the mustard thrower to “wag the dog”. Please excuse the mixing of metaphors, but we have indeed been wondering if and when Number 45 would concoct a plot like the fake war in the film “Wag the Dog” to distract and immobilize his critics. While the real target for Trump’s mustard pot may well be the Chinese, it is the WHO – and the UN, the G7, the G20 and all other avenues for global collaboration – that will suffer from the collateral damage. It would appear that this throwing of a mustard pot at the WHO is just the beginning of a real mess.

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