Seizing on President Trump's criticism of the World Health Organization for its response to the COVID-19 crisis, America's ambassador to the United Nations called on Wednesday for "complete transparency and accountability" from the U.N. health body, saying failure to act would be "unforgivable."
The remarks by Kelly Craft followed Trump's announcement on Tuesday that he will suspend U.S. funding to the WHO for a period of 60 to 90 days while his administration works to review the agency's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Craft said the WHO did not adequately verify information it was receiving from the Chinese government in the opening days of the outbreak, saying that failure cost lives.
"Had it been accurate, had they managed the information they received early on, it would have obviously slowed the virus and it would have saved thousands of lives," Craft said in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And I think that's where we have a real issue with this. It's about the American lives and it's about the lives of those in the world."
The ambassador's comments come at a time when President Trump is seen trying to sidestep blame for his early response to the crisis. With polls showing that more Americans now disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus than approve, Trump is facing growing scrutiny over whether he waited too long to take steps that health experts say could have slowed the spread of the virus.
The pause in funding for the world's leading health organization drew quick condemnation. In a statement issued shortly after the president's announcement, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, "Withholding funds for WHO in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century makes as much sense as cutting off ammunition to an ally as the enemy closes in."
But Craft defended the president's decision to pause America's funding for the WHO, which amounts to approximately $500 million per year, more than any other nation.
"The WHO not only serves the American people, but serves the world," Craft said. "And I'm telling you that if they do not turn this around, it is unforgivable."
Asked how pausing U.S. funding for the WHO would improve the response for a crisis that has killed more than 133,000 people worldwide and nearly 28,000 in the U.S. alone, Craft said, "I can't answer about what we are going to uncover." She added, however, "We are the largest contributors by far to humanitarian causes throughout the United Nations."
Addressing China's role in the virus' spread, Craft said it was difficult for her to judge whether Beijing was being open and honest now about what it knows about the coronavirus.
"You would think it would be to China's best interests, because obviously they want to mitigate the crisis from within. But then they've had a track record of not being open and honest in order to cover up for the origin," she said.
Echoing her critique of the WHO, she said China needs to "take a moral responsibility" for its actions. "I'm telling you, it's unforgivable if they don't. That's all I can say."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What is the case for suspending funds to the World Health Organization? President Trump said this week he would do that, pending an investigation. He blamed the WHO for failing to give better information as the coronavirus spread in China in recent months. The WHO is part of the United Nations, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told us that officials are calculating how to withhold the money.
KELLY CRAFT: What we really need to make sure the world understands is that the WHO, they are in the front line of battling COVID-19. And I'm telling you that if they do not turn this around, it is unforgivable.
INSKEEP: Ambassador Kelly Craft has been attending remote meetings of the U.N. Security Council. She took our call while practicing social distancing at home.
CRAFT: We've not taken away the funding. We are pausing the funding in order to review and to best understand why we haven't had transparency. The WHO was not verifying information that they were receiving from the Chinese government. And when we realized that the information that was being given to us and to the world concerning COVID-19 - it was not accurate. Had it been accurate - had they managed the information they received early on, it would have obviously slowed the virus and it would have saved thousands of lives. And I think that's been where we have a real issue with this is - it's about the American lives, and it's about the lives of those in the world.
INSKEEP: So what they're accused of, essentially, is not being quick enough to jump on this crisis, not being quick enough to understand and spread the word about how serious it is. China did disclose this virus in December, I believe. The WHO was on the case by January, according to them and according to the U.S. government. So it did take them a few weeks. But the president, we know, had information in January about the pandemic and didn't declare an emergency for two months - until March. Couldn't the president be accused of the same thing as the WHO?
CRAFT: You know, what the president's single worry has been has been serving the American people, and that's why he assembled that incredible group of the White House task force led by Vice President Pence. And you know, WHO has a responsibility to get this right.
INSKEEP: But why accuse the WHO of being slow if the United States was slow?
CRAFT: What we're accusing is the information. When you contribute to an agency, you expect them to be transparent and accurate with your information. The WHO was formed to safeguard humanity. And at this moment, they have one enemy, and that is the virus - period.
INSKEEP: Let's assume that the accusations are accurate. And of course, there is a difference of views about what the WHO could really have demanded from China, which is an independent country. But let's assume for this question that the charges are true. Patrick Leahy, senator from Vermont, says that denying funding in this occasion to the WHO is like denying ammunition to an ally in war. I mean, we still need a World Health Organization. How would pausing funding or removing funding improve the response to this immediate crisis that we're in?
CRAFT: You know, I can't answer about what we are going to uncover, and I can't answer how the president and the secretary are going to respond. But I will take on, you know, their response. I will act upon their action, and I will advise and obviously keep the secretary-general and the Security Council fully advised of the reaction and the response that we've received from WHO. We - you know that we are the largest contributors, by far, to humanitarian causes throughout the United Nations.
INSKEEP: Do you think the funding is going to go ahead in the end?
CRAFT: I think at the end of the day, what the president cares about is the truth, the transparency - because, remember, this is not going to be the only virus...
INSKEEP: But I mean, do you think you're going to have discussions with the WHO and you're going to end up paying the money?
CRAFT: You know, I can't predict the future. I'm hoping that the WHO will turn it around and be transparent. The decision to halt the funding is going to be really pending on a full investigation and a full review of their performance. We won't know until we kind of get further and further into what has transpired within the WHO.
INSKEEP: I guess we should explain for people - the World Health Organization is under the auspices of the United Nations. It is essentially an advisory organization. The real power at the United Nations, of course, is the Security Council, where you sit representing the United States. And I'd like to know your perspective of what the Security Council should be doing. Should the United Nations be coordinating some broader global response to the pandemic than it has so far?
CRAFT: You know, actually, we have, Steve. The secretary-general came out very early on in calling for a global cease-fire. We have countries that have - or they're in conflict. And we have a lot of refugees that already have diseases and other health issues, so we can't just stop everything for COVID-19; we have to continue on. But what we are doing is we are negotiating a resolution that we hope to have finished by the end of the week, the first of next week.
INSKEEP: So this is a resolution that would point toward that, that would try to support the idea of stopping conflict for a while.
CRAFT: Correct. Correct.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, I'd like to ask about a small news story, maybe with large implications, involving another member of the Security Council - China. China is reported to have sent a survey vessel back into waters claimed by Vietnam, part of China's apparent effort to extend influence in the waters around the South China Sea. Has China been taking advantage of the distractions of this crisis to make moves to advance its influence?
CRAFT: You know, we are closely monitoring all of China's actions. We have to hold people accountable. But at the same time, we try to be as amiable toward one another as we can. And this is an issue that Secretary Pompeo and the DOD - they take this on. And I can assure you that they are monitoring what the Chinese are doing.
INSKEEP: Well, this is an interesting thing you're pointing out. China is a geopolitical rival to the United States. But at the same time, you sitting there at the Security Council, you need China's collaboration on issue after issue. Otherwise, nothing gets done.
CRAFT: Well, you know, I need their collaboration, but I'm also going to call them out when they're not telling the truth.
INSKEEP: Ambassador Kelly Craft, thanks very much for the time.
CRAFT: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
INSKEEP: She is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.