Using the COVID-19 pandemic to score political points is dangerous and will only cause more deaths, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday, after President Trump criticized the WHO and its relationship with China. Tedros also revealed that in recent months, other criticisms of him have included death threats.
“Please don’t politicize this virus,” Tedros said in a briefing in Geneva, after he was asked about Trump’s remarks. He later urged political leaders to “please quarantine politicizing COVID.”
“The focus of all political parties should be to save their people,” Tedros said. He added that politicizing the virus only exploits differences at the national level.
“If you want to be exploited and if you want to have many more bodybags, then you [politicize the virus],” the WHO leader said. “If you don’t want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicizing it.”
The remarks came one day after President Trump sharply criticized the WHO and suggested he might put a hold on U.S. funding — the largest single source of money for the health organization.
Tedros did not refer to Trump by name as he stressed the importance of confronting COVID-19 as a common enemy. And he stated several times that he does not mind being targeted by personal attacks. Everyone’s focus, he said, should remain on the coronavirus, not political or international rivalries.
“The unity of your country will be very important to defeat this dangerous virus,” Tedros said. Without unity, he added, even countries with advanced health care systems “will be in trouble, and more crisis.”
COVID-19 has now been blamed for at least 80,000 deaths worldwide and more than 1.4 million people have been confirmed to be infected by the virus, according to a COVID-19 dashboard created by Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering, which reports pandemic numbers in near real time.
“No need to use COVID to score political points,” Tedros said. “You have many other ways to prove yourselves.”
To do so, he added is “like playing with fire.”
“If we care about our people, if we care about our citizens,” Tedros said, “please work across party lines, across ideology, across beliefs, across any differences, for that matter. We need to behave. That’s how we can defeat this virus.”
“We don’t do politics in WHO,” he later said.
Responding to a question about how he views criticisms of him and the WHO during the crisis, Tedros said he had been targeted by racial slurs and even death threats, saying those threats had emanated from Taiwan.
Tedros added that he doesn’t care when people target him personally. And he said he is proud to be a black man, no matter what racists might say.
That also applies to death threats, he added: “I don’t give a damn.”
As he urged unity, the WHO chief cited the historic joint effort by the U.S. and the Soviet Union to fight smallpox during the Cold War as an example.
“The former U.S.S.R. and United States came together and agreed to eradicate smallpox and brought the whole world together with them,” Tedros said.
At the time of that cooperation in the 1960s, he noted, smallpox was killing 2 million people each year and infecting 15 million annually.
“The world could not tolerate that kind of disaster,” Tedros said, urging the U.S. and China to work together to fight the crisis.
While the U.S. is the WHO’s largest contributor, China, the world’s second-largest economy, is not among the top donors. As NPR’s Laurel Wamsley reports, the three next-largest funders are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the GAVI Alliance and the United Kingdom.
The majority of the WHO’s biennial budget — $5.6 billion, in the most recent term — comes through specified voluntary contributions. In that category, the U.S. is responsible for nearly 15% of the funding. China accounts for less than 1 percent — 0.21% — with another 0.11 coming from the semi-autonomous region of Macao.
The WHO also gets nearly $1 billion in funding from member nations through “assessed contributions.” The U.S. currently accounts for 22% of that amount, while China is second — responsible for around 12%, according to the current tally.