President Trump’s decision to halt funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) due to what he claims has been a mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic could have far-reaching and long-felt effects, says Stephanie Smith, an expert on global health policy at Virginia Tech.

“What COVID-19 is bringing to light, perhaps in an unprecedented way, is how globalized our systems are,” said Smith. “Not just our economies and supply chains, but also our health systems – which play an important role in undergirding economic growth and development, especially in lower-income countries. The relationships the WHO has in countries around the world are critical not only in supporting population health at the local level, but they also carry ramifications for global public health and commerce.”

Smith says the WHO does more than just coordinate international responses to large-scale, novel infectious disease outbreaks. “They also provide essential technical support in low-income countries for conducting on-the-ground disease surveillance and vaccination campaigns,” she said, referencing the organization’s efforts to help eradicate polio and other infectious diseases that were once global plagues.

While the U.S. is only one part of the WHO’s funding program, and most of the organization’s surveillance and vaccination campaigns in lower-income countries have been suspended due to the current pandemic, Smith says reduced funding could delay the restart of those programs once the COVID-19 outbreak is contained.

“Suspending or delaying those essential programs puts everyone at risk,” she said. “Not only could we see an overall reduction in global herd immunity for diseases like measles and polio, but even localized outbreaks could have ripple effects on economies worldwide. A healthy workforce is an essential component of any domestic economy, and as we’ve seen, people, goods, and diseases traverse all boundaries. If the WHO isn’t able to provide support to fragile health systems, we’ll all feel the effects when we return to global patterns of work and commerce.”

Stephanie L. Smith is an associate professor in the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs. Her research focuses on agenda setting dynamics in the global health arena and in low- and middle-income countries. Informed by public health leaders and frontline health workers in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and South America, her research findings have been published in The Lancet, Social Science & Medicine, Health Policy and Planning, and Global Public Health.

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