John Oliver blasts US withdrawal from WHO: 'Worst possible decision at worst possible time'

Adrian Horton
·4 min read

With the US election day just two weeks away, John Oliver returned to Last Week Tonight to condemn one potentially catastrophic outcome of a Trump victory: the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO).

“If you’re thinking ‘surely he can’t do that, right?’ The good news is, the WHO’s constitution does not include any provisions for members to withdraw,” the HBO host said. “The bad news is, there’s exactly one exception to that rule, and it’s the United States,” which passed a resolution decades ago that allowed for its resignation with a year’s notice. The exemption is a “pretty weird perk for America alone to have”, said Oliver. “It’s like finding out we demanded to be the only country allowed to wax the pubes of every squirrel – why would we want the right to do that in the first place? And, more to the point, why would we ever consider actually doing it?”

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Leaving the WHO, a global health mainstay with 194 member nations, is not just the usual Trump bluster; his administration has already submitted a notice of withdrawal to take effect 6 July 2021, which would have disastrous consequences for the organization’s funding.

Founded in 1948, the WHO is crucial to a coordinated, communicative approach to global health emergencies between nations. The organization responds to infectious disease outbreaks around the world and helps prepare the seasonal flu vaccine – all on a budget of $2.4bn a year.

That budget is about the same amount it costs to run a large US hospital, “which is wild!” said Oliver. “It’s like finding out the US navy runs on the same budget as Typhoon Lagoon at Disney World. I’m not sure if Typhoon Lagoon’s budget is way too high, or the US Navy’s is way too low, but something is definitely off there.”

That budget is, in part, why Trump has objected to the organization. The US pays far more to the organization per year than China, a fact that Trump has complained about publicly and cited as the reason for his departure. The reality of the organization’s funding is far more complicated, said Oliver; the real problem is that “Trump is incapable of acknowledging nuance – in his world, you’re either fucking someone or you’re getting fucked. And that’s not a great perspective when it comes to cooperating on global health.”

Though the US paid $446.5m in 2019 compared to China’s $43m, the bulk of American funding was voluntary; the organization only receives 17% of its funding through “assessed” contributions, aka country membership dues. The bulk of its budget is funded through voluntary donations, for which countries can earmark specific use, because the President Ronald Reagan passed a “zero growth policy” for WHO funding in the 1980s. With the assessed dues frozen at 1990s levels, the WHO has been forced to increasingly rely on donated funds.

In other words, “this whole mess is almost entirely America’s fault”, said Oliver. The US pays far more than China “mostly because we choose to, because the WHO is underfunded, because of something we did”.

Nevertheless, Trump and his administration, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have insisted that the US can act as an independent global health advocate outside of the WHO – an idea Oliver called “ridiculous”, since, as one former US rep to the WHO told ProPublica, “no one is looking for US-based alternatives to WHO”.

“Of course they’re not!” Oliver exclaimed. “Especially after seeing the way we’ve handled the coronavirus. Nobody wants a US-based alternative here for the same reason nobody is looking for a Joe Exotic-based alternative to Jeopardy – I’m not saying he doesn’t think he can do it, but everyone likes the way it works now, and his alternative might be actively dangerous.”

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The US withdrawing from the WHO in the middle of a pandemic is like “taking the fire engines away in the middle of fighting the fire”, Oliver continued, “or getting rid of the lifeboats while the boat is sinking, or choosing to edit Kevin Spacey into a movie just weeks before its release date. It’s the worst possible decision at the worst possible time.”

And while there is fair criticism of the WHO, “the solution clearly isn’t to walk away”, he added. Instead, the proposal for US withdrawal by next year is “yet another depressing example of Trump seeing something that involves shared sacrifice, tradeoffs and complexity, and decided to suggest to blow it up because he either doesn’t understand it, doesn’t care, or both”.

Which is yet another reason why the 2020 election, already underway in several states, is overwhelming consequential, Oliver concluded: “Pulling out of the WHO at any time, but especially in the midst of a pandemic that’s killed over 200,000 Americans and a million people around the world is one of the most ill-advised, dumbest things we could possibly do.”