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Trump’s War on Public Health

After ignoring warnings about the deadly implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, US President Donald Trump is now responding to the crisis in the worst way imaginable. Between attacking the World Health Organization and launching another front in his trade war, he has all but ensured that the crisis will get worse.

WASHINGTON, DC – US President Donald Trump’s administration is effectively waging war on human health. In addition to imposing tariffs on imported medical equipment and restrictions on exports, the White House has proposed cutting the budget of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by 16%, starting in October. Moreover, Trump has also tried to divert blame on to the World Health Organization, after he himself long denied the threat of COVID-19, initially dismissing criticism of his administration’s response as the Democrats’ “new hoax.”

Because viruses ignore political borders, they can create far-reaching externalities, both for the economy and for public health, which is itself a global public good. Over the years, policymakers, scientists, and other experts have amassed a great deal of knowledge about preventing and treating viral illnesses. Collecting data and evidence on the spread of contagious diseases has been critical to that effort. In 1851, representatives from around the world convened in Paris for the International Sanitary Conference to address cholera. By 1897, there was also an international convention to tackle plague. In the decades that followed, outbreaks of both diseases fell substantially.

Then, after World War II, the WHO was established as the global institution in charge of collecting and sharing health data, coordinating research, and offering guidance on epidemic preparedness plans. Thanks to its contributions, recent epidemics of H1N1 (swine flu), SARS, MERS, and Ebola have been contained. Yet despite the importance of the WHO’s work, the United States has not had a representative on the organization’s executive board since 2018 (though Trump finally announced his intended nominee for the position last month).