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Biden halts US withdrawal from WHO, to join global vaccine effort

By Lalit K Jha and Yoshita Singh
Last updated on: January 21, 2021 13:00 IST
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The United States rejoined the World Health Organisation in one of the first official orders of the Joe Biden presidency, reversing a key foreign policy decision his predecessor Donald Trump took last year after accusing the UN health agency of incompetence and bowing to Chinese pressure over the coronavirus pandemic.

IMAGE: US President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address during the inauguration on the West Front of the US Capitol. Photograph: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

In April last year, as the coronavirus pandemic was spreading across the globe, Trump cut off US funding to the WHO, saying it was "virtually controlled by China." He then went further, triggering the process to pull the US completely out of the organisation.

The withdrawal was due to go into effect in July this year, but Biden's order will cancel it.

Biden in a letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday, the first day of his presidency, said, “The United States intends to remain a member of the World Health Organisation.”

 

“The WHO plays a crucial role in the world's fight against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic as well as countless other threats to global health and health security. The United States will continue to be a full participant and a global leader in confronting such threats and advancing global health and health security,” Biden wrote.

The UN Secretary-General welcomed the US' re-engagement with the WHO, saying supporting the health agency is “absolutely critical” to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said Washington joining the global vaccine initiative will boost efforts to ensure equitable access to vaccines for all countries.

Guterres said now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop the virus and its shattering consequences.

The US has been the largest funder to the WHO, contributing more than USD 450 million per annum. The US has been a party to the WHO Constitution since June 21, 1948.

As the world reached a “heart-wrenching milestone” of two million COVID-19-related deaths less than a week ago, Guterres lamented that the deadly impact of the pandemic has worsened due to the absence of a global coordinated effort and said that “vaccinationalism” by governments is “self-defeating” that will delay a global recovery.

Guterres has said the UN is supporting countries to mobilise the largest global immunisation effort in history and the world organization is committed to making sure that vaccines are seen as global public goods - people's vaccines.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden signed the executive order, reversing Trump's decision to withdraw from the WHO. “This will strengthen our own efforts to get the pandemic under control by improving global health, and tomorrow we are not wasting any time,” she said.

The WHO's Executive Board has been meeting virtually this week, and the Biden administration announced that a US delegation, headed by Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, will participate.

Fauci will deliver a speech on January 21 to the WHO as head of a US delegation to lay out how the administration intends to work with the WHO on reforms, supporting the coronavirus response and promoting global health and health security

“Once the United States resumes its engagement with the WHO, the Biden-Harris administration will work with the WHO and our partners to strengthen and reform the organisation, support the COVID-19 health and humanitarian response, and advance global health and health security,” the White House said in a fact sheet.

Business Roundtable welcomed the decision of Biden to not to withdraw from the WHO. “We need international cooperation to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control here in America and around the world.

Business Roundtable applauds President Biden's decision to re-engage with the WHO to improve the international response to the pandemic and welcomes his commitment to WHO reform to prevent and better respond to future public health crises,” it said.

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Lalit K Jha and Yoshita Singh
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