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Media Advisory: WVU health, policy experts say Americans face greater risks if U.S. pulls from World Health Organization

From WVU Today:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The Trump administration’s plan to withdraw the United States from the World Health Organization, effective July 6, 2021, could reshape global diplomacy and weaken public health efforts at home, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to West Virginia University experts in health and public policy. 

Editor’s Note: West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise, or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.

The WHO’s functions during the coronavirus pandemic have included coordinating efforts to secure safety and medical equipment, such as ventilators and personal protective equipment, to healthcare workers around the world. A withdrawal from the agency could also disrupt clinical trials for vaccines and contact tracing.

Chris Martin, director of the Global Engagement OfficeHealth Sciences Center, and Chris Plein, professor of public administration in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, both weighed in on the potential repercussions of withdrawing from the WHO, as well as the political aspects surrounding the international organization.


“As we have seen with the current COVID-19 pandemic, infectious diseases do not respect international borders. What that means is that, even if one country successfully reduces the number of cases, the disease can and will come back so long as it circulates anywhere in the world. The analogy that I use is that, without a comprehensive global approach, we simply end up playing pingpong with the virus moving back-and-forth between countries. We have already seen that with this virus. The WHO plays a critical role in our global response to health challenges through data sharing, pooled resources and coordinated disease responses.

“Americans are at risk so long as the virus circulates anywhere in the world. Consider a vaccine, which many of us feel may be the only way to definitively control COVID-19.  That will only be effective if a majority of the population receives it, meaning vaccinating Americans only will, at best, give us a brief reprieve. The U.S. withdrawal weakens WHO and hampers the cooperation we need to protect the lives of our citizens.”

“The withdrawal during a pandemic has created serious alarm within the global health community. If we didn’t share a planet with China, we would not be experiencing this pandemic. But we do share a planet with many other countries, and an outbreak of infectious disease in any of them places us all at risk. Regardless of how we feel about these countries, we must work with them if our response is to be effective.” —Chris Martin, director of the Global Engagement Office, Health Sciences Center at WVU

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear how globally connected we have become. We are being reminded of lessons learned a century ago during the Influenza Pandemic that disease crosses oceans and borders with ease. In our present age, we also recognize how interdependent our world has become. We rely on each other for the information, supplies, drugs and research needed to address public health crises. More broadly, we are dependent on each other to sustain economies and to navigate shared challenges.

“A crisis tends to reveal shortcomings in the way things are done. Think of smaller, simpler and more local ‘crises’ like a snowfall and the storm of criticism that often follows regarding the lack of plowed roads, school closing decisions and weather forecasting accuracy. These of course are small challenges when compared to other major crises we have faced that led to change and reform in the way we do things in the United States. Shortcomings in homeland security preparedness and disaster management in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina stand out as examples. The complexities of the COVID-19 crisis are revealing some weaknesses in the World Health Organization and the need for improvement. Criticism has been leveled from a number of different quarters and from different viewpoints arguing that the organization has become too politicized and too bureaucratic. As a result, coordination, transparency and responsiveness may have suffered. At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that WHO’s mission and purpose is crucial. Many are calling for reforms. 

“Threats to withdraw funding from WHO at this point are mainly symbolic, but may well become substantive if President Trump is reelected. Right now, the rhetoric emanating from the White House is mainly political with an eye toward the November elections rather than focused on improving the form of a very important function. While a dramatic device for gaining attention, this approach may not be an effective strategy for action and resolution. Regardless of how the 2020 election turns out, the COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt force more measured and calibrated efforts to improve not only public health coordination at the international scale but also within our own country.” —Christopher Plein, Eberly Family Professor for Outstanding Public Service

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