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On April 14, 2020, President Trump announced the suspension of funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate WHO’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic—citing WHO’s “disastrous decision” to oppose a travel ban on China, and for being slow and “China-centric.” Certainly, China failed in its international duty to respond rapidly and transparently to the novel coronavirus, and it suppressed truthful information, propelling a localized outbreak into a pandemic now in over 210 countries. Yet close examination of WHO’s COVID-19 response reveals that the Organization acted in line with its authority under the International Health Regulations, and using the available scientific evidence. Still, WHO’s response has been constrained by its limited funding and authority, and its need to maintain diplomacy among member states.

We are facing a once-in-a-century health emergency, with WHO under attack as never before. But out of a crisis can come an historic opportunity to strengthen WHO to become the health agency the world desperately needs. What might WHO reform look like if we truly want to empower the Organization, as we should? That reform should address the structural problems that put WHO in the crossfires of geopolitical disputes and force it to appeal to countries’ political interests instead of the best scientific evidence. We propose an emboldened WHO Director-General, sustainable funding, strengthened authority to use unofficial data, and incentives for states’ compliance with global health norms.

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Milbank Quarterly Opinion, May 6, 2020, published online: