Donald Trump has been condemned around the world after saying he was cutting off US payments to the World Health Organisation during the coronavirus pandemic, accusing the body of failing to do enough to stop the virus from spreading.
The US president claimed the outbreak could have been contained at its source and that lives could have been saved if the UN health agency had done a better job investigating early reports coming out of China.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-nation EU “deeply” regrets the suspension of funds and added that the WHO is “needed more than ever” to combat the pandemic.
He called for measures to promote unity instead of division, and said: “Only by joining forces can we overcome this crisis that knows no borders.”
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the country is “seriously concerned” about the US decision, telling reporters: “As the most authoritative and professional international institution in the field of global public health security, the WHO plays an irreplaceable role in responding to the global public health crisis.”
Spokesman Zhao Lijian said the US move will “weaken the WHO’s capabilities and undermine international co-operation in fighting the epidemic”.
UN secretary-feneral Antonio Guterres responded to Mr Trump’s announcement by saying now is not the time to end support, calling the WHO “absolutely critical” to the global effort to combat Covid-19.
Mr Guterres said the appropriate time for a review is “once we have finally turned the page on this pandemic”.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he regrets the US decision, adding that Washington has been “a longstanding and generous friend to WHO and we hope it will continue to be so”.
He added: “Covid-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small. This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat, a dangerous enemy. When we’re divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us.”
German foreign minister Heiko Maas said: “Placing blame doesn’t help. Strengthening the UN, in particular the underfunded WHO, is a better investment, for example to develop and distribute tests and vaccines.”
They all spoke out after Mr Trump told a briefing on Tuesday: “The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable.”
The US contributed nearly 900 million dollars (£720 million) to the WHO’s budget for 2018-19, according to the agency’s website. That represents a fifth of its total budget for those years.
Washington gave nearly three-quarters of the funds in “specified voluntary contributions” and the rest in “assessed” funding as part of the commitment to UN institutions.
Last week, Mr Trump blasted the WHO for being “China-centric” and alleging that it had “criticised” his ban on travel from China as the Covid-19 outbreak was spreading from the city of Wuhan.
The WHO generally takes care not to criticise countries on their national policies, and it was not immediately clear what specific criticism the president was alluding to.
Mr Trump himself showed deference to China at the beginning stages of the outbreak.
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” he tweeted on January 24.
“The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
The American Medical Association immediately called on Mr Trump to reconsider his decision.
“During the worst public health crisis in a century, halting funding to the World Health Organisation is a dangerous step in the wrong direction that will not make defeating Covid-19 easier,” AMA president Patrice A Harris said.