University Professor Jeffrey Sachs: Trump's funding cut to WHO is 'disgraceful' and 'disgusting'

April 16, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump has drawn worldwide condemnation after he announced he was halting funding for the World Health Organization. This could make things worse in the global pandemic.

In this interview, Jeffrey Sachs, University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development in the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speaks with TIAN Wei from China Global Television Network (CGTN) for his views on the latest decision made by Trump, how we can step up global efforts in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, and global economic recovery. Watch full interview below.

The following are excerpts from the interview, slightly edited for content and clarity.

Q1: What’s your direct comment on the latest news suggesting the US would suspend funding for WHO?

Sachs: It's disgraceful. WHO is a crucial institution at the very moment of this world epidemic, so it needs all the help that it can get. What Trump is trying to do is to shift the blame for the United States failure to control the epidemic to WHO or to China or to anyone that he can do so because he does not think properly, he does not think honestly.

Q2: what are some of the sources that the White House would get in terms of evaluating a virus or a public health issue?

Sachs: Our country is filled with scientific expertise. It just depends on whether the government listens to expertise or not. Right now for many weeks, Trump has said he's going to decide these things and he says ridiculous things. If politician like Trump who doesn't understand very much of anything decides to make decisions on his own or to make statements that are absolutely without a scientific basis, the whole country gets in trouble. This is a matter of leadership, but the right kind of leadership empowers expertise, honors evidence, and operates in a transparent manner.

Q3: We understand there have been close interactions in fact over the past years between the China CDC and the U.S. CDC. Even on the 3rd of January, there were reportedly conversations going on between the directors of the two CDC's after China informed the WHO of the virus. Do you think the White House has been using the various sources well?

Sachs: There were many reports by the U.S. intelligence agency, which was monitoring this risk. There were memos inside the White House. When China locked down all of China, anybody watching this would understand that this is extraordinarily dangerous. But unfortunately the U.S. government did not act properly. We lost several weeks by the time there was some kind of focus on it. The U.S. has basically gone into a kind of national lockdown now. I think this lockdown will reduce the number of cases but what's important in an epidemic is that after the number of cases comes down, there has to be very serious public health measures to trace every potential new outbreak. This is what China has to do now because every day there are some dozens of people returning from abroad infected. If they are not paid attention to, then the virus is going to spread again.

Q4: If you look at some of the other countries in Europe, people also argue whether there have been appropriate and timely measures being taken at the right time. What's your take?

Sachs: I know both the U.S. and the European countries did not do well. One of the reasons I think is that in Asia the memory of SARS remains very strong. SARS was very frightening and it led to a lot of changes in public policy and in the public health systems all through East Asia. When this epidemic broke out, the idea that this was like SARS but even more dangerous made the countries of East Asia go on high alert. But in the U.S. and in Europe this seemed far away. It didn't seem like a direct threat and our public health systems are not on alert the way they should be.

"I blame Trump because he was told repeatedly how dangerous this was but he ignored it. Even when the dangers became clear, he has been incapable of listening properly to people who know much better than he does."

Professor Jeffrey Sachs

Q5: Do you think the voice calling for cooperation is going to prevail this time? Are you very optimistic about that?

Sachs: I think that cooperation is our only way forward certainly in this epidemic. But if we care about our health, our food supplies, and the functioning of the natural environment, it requires cooperation as well. But in geopolitics one of the games of the United States is to create divisions and to say China's on one side, we're on another side. You have to pick sides and so forth. This is an old, extremely dangerous playbook. It's going to serve nobody to have a divided world. We should understand especially at this moment of crisis to be mutually accountable and responsible and that's why this announcement about halting payments to WHO is so disgusting. This is an absolutely the worst conceivable moment to be even thinking in such a direction.

Trump has also been an enemy of global cooperation. He's the man of trade wars, technology wars, making division, taking the United States out of international treaties, now stopping payments for WHO at the height of a global crisis unprecedented in our lifetimes.

"One basic idea is that it is not only China that has done a good job of controlling the epidemic but many neighbors as well. I hope that the countries of East Asia could really step up cooperation right now to help the rest of the world because the fate of the world is still at stake right now."

Professor Jeffrey Sachs

Q6: Do you think that after the U.S. and Europe coming out of this crisis, would they be able to help or there's likely to be an increasing reluctance of looking outward but rather only looking inward?

Sachs: well I'm afraid that the United States right now stands mostly in opposition to the international system. It attacks the United Nations. It attacks the World Trade Organization. It attacks the Paris climate agreement. This is Trump's politics--America first--it's a very dangerous and naïve approach to the world. I've written a book recently about this kind of American exceptionalism, which says America doesn't have to play by the rules. I'm very much concerned and don't believe it's going to change soon.

Q7: What about global supply chains? Now international institutions need urgent support and coordinated efforts. What's going to happen over there from your observations so far?

Sachs: It will require a lot of efforts to make sure that global food trade continues as normal. Many places that are extremely important for the global food supply are having a major epidemic right now. We have a mutual dependence in this world. China depends on the food supply chains globally and the world depends on China's production as well. This is because we have an international trading system. It is another area where I think China can give support to make sure that the food supply chain, the medicine supply chain, the medical equipment supply chains continue to function in the midst of this crisis.