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'Of course we’re disappointed because now more than ever a co-ordinated global response based on science and accurate data is essential,' International Development Minister Karina Gould, seen here on Dec. 10, 2019, said in an interview.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A Canadian government minister says Ottawa is disappointed that President Donald Trump has frozen U.S. funding to the World Health Organization after accusing it of mismanaging the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Karina Gould, Canada’s International Development Minister, said the move was disheartening.

“Of course we’re disappointed because now more than ever a co-ordinated global response based on science and accurate data is essential,” the minister said in an interview.

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“We are living in an unprecedented and historic situation and the global community must work with multilateral organizations, including the WHO, in order to combat this pandemic.”

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The World Health Organization is funded by member countries. The United States, with an annual contribution of about US$400-million, is the WHO’s biggest funding source, providing more than 10 per cent of the agency’s budget.

Ms. Gould said member countries will have to grapple with how to respond to the shortfall. “We’re going to have to figure out as a global community how we ensure that the WHO and other multilateral organizations that are playing a really important role in the response to COVID-19, but also other development and humanitarian challenges, have the resources that they need to effectively combat this pandemic.”

Leaders of the WHO, at their daily briefing in Geneva, vowed to continue their fight against the pandemic with new funding sources to replace any U.S. cuts.

“We regret the decision of the President of the United States to order a halt in funding,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the health agency. “WHO is reviewing the impact … and will work with our partners to fill any financial gaps we face and to ensure our work continues uninterrupted.”

The head of the World Health Organization said on Wednesday that he regretted President Donald Trump's decision to pull funding for the organization, but called on world unity to fight the new coronavirus pandemic. Reuters

However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for his part, declined to criticize Mr. Trump’s move when asked about it repeatedly at his daily media briefing in Ottawa on Wednesday. “My priority and the priority of our government right now is to do all we can to protect Canadians and ensure the health and safety of people right across the country,” he said. “That means working with experts right here and around the world.”

Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer also avoided commenting on Mr. Trump’s decision but instead criticized the WHO’s performance, questioning the accuracy of its data, and "the Chinese government’s influence over that organization.” He was also critical of the way Ottawa based many of its coronavirus planning decisions on information coming from the WHO despite reports that China has been concealing the full extent of the virus impact in that country.

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China has reported about six coronavirus cases for every 100,000 people, well below the rates in Italy, Spain and the United States. A report from Bloomberg News earlier this month said U.S. intelligence officials told the White House that Beijing concealed the full extent of the outbreak in China, where the coronavirus first appeared.

Increasing questions are being asked about the WHO’s relationship with China and whether the organization has sought to curry favour with Beijing – for access or money – in ways that have undermined the reliability of its advice.

As The Globe and Mail reported, on Jan. 31, the day after the WHO had declared a “public-health emergency of international concern” over the deadly coronavirus, and maintained no global restrictions on travel or trade were necessary, the organization’s lead representative in Beijing held a video briefing foreign diplomats. He called on other countries not to step out of line with the WHO recommendations – a key concern for Beijing, which was furious that countries were beginning to close their borders to Chinese travellers.

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In 2003, the WHO vocally criticized Chinese leadership for covering up the initial spread of the virus that caused SARS. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the organization has refused to denounce China’s concealment of information, even after it became clear that authorities in China had muzzled doctors.

The trustworthiness of the WHO is a particular concern for countries such as Canada, where public-health leaders have sought to follow the agency’s recommendations despite internal warnings about the reliability of information coming from China.

Asked if the WHO did a good job in handling the data it received from other countries, Mr. Trudeau said there will be time later for reflection and scrutiny.

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Responding to Mr. Trump’s accusation that the WHO delayed its response to the coronavirus when it first emerged in China, several WHO officials gave details of the agency’s public warnings about the virus in early January. This was weeks before Mr. Trump announced a ban on visitors from China, and about two months before he announced a national health emergency.

Mike Ryan, director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said it was “quite remarkable” that the agency was able to identify a cluster of 41 confirmed cases of an unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, China, in early January, when there are millions of cases of atypical pneumonia worldwide every year. It can be “very difficult” to identify such clusters in the middle of the flu season, he said.

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Around the world, political leaders criticized Mr. Trump’s move or distanced themselves from it.

South Africa, in a statement on Wednesday night, said it was “very concerned and alarmed” by Mr. Trump’s plan to halt funding to the WHO. “It is alarming that this very regrettable decision is announced as this deadly virus strikes Africa and the poorest and most vulnerable states,” the South African government said.

The European Union said it “deeply regrets” the decision to cut U.S. funding to the global health agency. “There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a tweet.

Australian Prime Minster Scott Morrison said he sympathized with Mr. Trump’s criticisms of the WHO, especially its support of reopening China’s “wet markets,” where freshly slaughtered animals are sold and where the outbreak first appeared in the city of Wuhan late last year.

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However, he added, the organization does a lot of important work. "We are not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, but they are also not immune from criticism and immune from doing things better.”

Mr. Trump announced Tuesday that he would freeze U.S. funding to the WHO pending an American review of its conduct, blaming the international body for “mismanaging” the response to the pandemic, as he faces mounting criticism of his own response to the outbreak.

He said he would withhold between US$400-million and US$500-million worth of payments as he accused the WHO of being too close to China.

The United States is already US$99-million in arrears on its dues, according to a WHO report from last month, owing US$57.8-million for this year and US$41.2-million from previous years. Eighty other countries, including Canada, have paid in full.

The move is Mr. Trump’s most serious effort to shift blame for the U.S.'s handling of the pandemic – he has previously accused state governors, the former Obama administration and congressional Democrats of failing to do enough to stop the virus.

The billionaire entrepreneur Bill Gates, whose family foundation is one of the WHO’s top funders, said the attempt to cut the agency’s funding during a global health crisis is “as dangerous as it sounds.”

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The agency’s work has been slowing the spread of the virus, “and if that work is stopped, no other organization can replace them,” he said. “The world needs WHO.”

The WHO, at its daily briefing in Geneva, made clear that it won’t allow Mr. Trump to damage its work. Many countries, organizations and individuals have pledged their “financial commitment” to the global agency in recent days, it said.

“This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat – a dangerous enemy,” Dr. Tedros told the briefing.

“When we are divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us.”

With reports from Nathan VanderKlippe in Beijing and Reuters

Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell discusses the far-reaching impact of the coronavirus pandemic on refugees, conflict and the economy. Gladwell was in conversation with Rudyard Griffiths from the Munk Debates. The Globe and Mail

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