Over the past week, we, the undersigned, have been reflecting on the US announcement that it would cut funding for the World Health Organization. We’ve also been thinking a lot about what leadership looks like in these times.
Our nation’s very survival during the COVID-19 crisis depends on collaborating with other countries. The truth is the US has been fortunate that it has not had to deal with the intricacies of managing infectious disease pandemics on our shores for a while. Pandemics like COVID-19, however, know no boundaries. The US, the most advanced nation in the world, is now the most impacted. At this time, we need the technical guidance of the WHO and the experiences and deep knowledge they can share with us.
To us, leadership means you keep your promises and pledges made, you honor your duties to global coalitions. Leadership means treating partnership with other Member States in the WHO as a sacred commitment. Upholding global agreements like the Paris Climate Accord or the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is a leading nation’s responsibility. We don’t get part-time membership in the world community, or on-again, off-again participation in international bodies formed to protect it. Leadership means that one can look at the mirror at the other end of this crisis and acknowledge—we did the best we could for our families, our colleagues, and indeed our fellow human beings.
Does the WHO need reform? Yes. Some of us have worked with people at the WHO in South Asia and in Geneva, and we can tell you, while it is sometimes maddening to work within its rules and bureaucracy, the WHO is made up of scientists, experts, and public health advocates of the highest order. In the global health community, many have been calling for WHO reform for some time. Perhaps this moment will accelerate it. But we do not believe that anything sinister guides the actions of the men and women of the WHO. Did the WHO make mistakes in handling the onset of COVID-19? Perhaps yes. But the time to sort that out is later, after the crisis is over. Does it warrant that the WHO’s biggest funder cuts their funding? And in the middle of the pandemic, from which the entire world—especially the US—is reeling? No. Absolutely not.
Solidarity is the urgent need of the hour. What was most moving about the One World concert on Saturday April 18th was its demonstration of unity—the overriding spirit that everyone is in this together. Celebrities from many countries and ordinary people, alike, formed a powerful chorus by repeating a singular message over and over again: we are thankful to frontline workers—doctors, nurses, hospital staff, janitors, delivery and grocery store workers, security staff, public transportation operators, and so many others—who put themselves in harm’s way to take care of us. We all belong to this “us.” The words were heartfelt. The people, all sincere. It was a stirring show, and a beautiful celebration in honor of the WHO, ironically in the same week that the US administration said it would take away its funding for the organization.
We are struck by the words of Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet: “President Trump’s decision to defund WHO is simply this—a crime against humanity. Every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity.”
The US is our home. And we are proud to be American. Eternal optimists, we believe the US will reconsider its decision. As concerned global citizens, we sincerely hope it does.
Nalini Saligram, Denise Freier, Kathryn Graves, Pamela Yih, Gloria Barone, Heather Nornes