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Trump Cuts Funds for World Health Org as Oxfam Warns Pandemic Could Push Half a Billion into Poverty

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As the confirmed cases of coronavirus surpass 2 million around the world, President Donald Trump says he will cut U.S. support for the World Health Organization. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet medical journal, called it a “crime against humanity.” Oxfam America said the cuts slash “any hopes for the responsible international cooperation and solidarity that is critical to save lives and restore the global economy.” This comes as a new Oxfam report estimates the pandemic’s economic fallout could push more than half a billion more people into poverty. We get response from Paul O’Brien, vice president of Oxfam America.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the death rate from the coronavirus pandemic continues to accelerate, with more than 2 million confirmed infections worldwide and at least 127,000 deaths, President Trump said Tuesday he would cut off U.S. support for the World Health Organization. Speaking from the Rose Garden, Trump sought to shift blame for his administration’s disastrous handling of the pandemic onto the U.N. public health agency, accusing the WHO of helping China to cover up the spread of the coronavirus when it emerged late last year.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The world depends on the WHO to work with countries to ensure that accurate information about international health threats is shared in a timely manner and, if it’s not, to independently tell the world the truth about what is happening. The WHO failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s decision sparked international outrage and condemnation. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet medical journal, tweeted, “President Trump’s decision to defund WHO is simply this — a crime against humanity. Every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity.”

The American Medical Association’s president, Patrice Harris, called on Trump to reconsider the cut, saying, quote, “Fighting a global pandemic requires international cooperation and reliance on science and data,” she said. The global anti-poverty organization Oxfam America said the cuts slash, quote, “any hopes for the responsible international cooperation and solidarity that is critical to save lives and restore the global economy.”

This comes as a new Oxfam report estimates the pandemic’s economic fallout could push more than half a billion more people into poverty. For nearly 3 billion people already living in poverty and facing malnutrition, the virus could be deadly. In all, it estimates half of the world’s 7.8 billion people could be living in poverty in the virus’s aftermath. The report is called “Dignity Not Destitution: An 'Economic Rescue Plan For All' to tackle the Coronavirus crisis and rebuild a more equal world.”

For more, we’re joined by Oxfam America’s vice president, Paul O’Brien.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with President Trump. In the midst of this pandemic, where the U.S. is the epicenter of the world’s pandemic — more deaths than any other country in the world — President Trump announces he’s ending support for the World Health Organization. Paul O’Brien, your response?

PAUL O’BRIEN: Thanks for having me on.

It was pretty shocking to hear that last night. We had predicted last week that the number of deaths from coronavirus could be as high as 40 million over the coming period. So, we’re already in crisis, but it could get significantly worse.

President Trump has his treasury secretary talking to other G20 finance ministers today, and what that leader needs to be able to show is America’s role in leading multilateral cooperation. And at the same time, he’s announcing that he’s going to cut the legs off the World Health Organization, thereby undermining his own attempt to show global leadership. It was profoundly self-destructive for U.S. leadership. It’s profoundly harmful for our world.

And it seems to be nothing other than short-term blame shifting and scapegoating in order to distract people from the failures of this administration to properly lead on the issue. But its consequences could be devastating for people.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul O’Brien, there are many critics of the World Health Organization. But across the board now, with President Trump announcing that he is cutting the funding for this organization — the U.S., the largest funder of the World Health Organization — explain what this organization does and why it is so critical. And with President Trump so deeply concerned about what’s happening in the United States, one would think, why what happens in the rest of the world makes an enormous difference to what will happen in this country?

PAUL O’BRIEN: Well, as you say, New York is the epicenter of the crisis. The U.S. is now facing more deaths per day than has been seen. We are facing our own health crisis here. We’re also facing our own economic crisis here just at the same time. You’ve got 17 million new unemployed in the United States. And even before the crisis started, you had 40% of Americans didn’t have $400 to their name for an emergency. And then the crisis hits. So you’ve got a health crisis and an economic crisis here. You’ve got that, in many ways, even worse in many of the communities that Oxfam works in. We work in 90 countries around the world, including the United States. But you’ve got this health and economic crisis coming at the same time.

You’ve got a World Health Organization, whose job it is to convene leaders to make sure that the response is coordinated and evidence-based, is based on science, and that there is a truly global response to a global pandemic. So, apart from the financing of the organization, the leadership and the moral authority of the organization to be able to drive global consensus to respond to this health and economic crisis is absolutely critical. And for President Trump, the world’s most powerful politician, to stand on a stage yesterday, for whatever reason he had, and to attack them, in order to blame shift, undermines their ability to get that global consensus at a critical time. So, this act, in itself, could have profound repercussions for many of the people that we see as particularly vulnerable in the United States and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: He made the announcement in the Rose Garden yesterday, the single one-day — the highest one-day death toll for any nation in the world: 2,228 people died of COVID-19. That’s the United States. Talk about the rest of the world, where perhaps the — where COVID-19 hasn’t hit as hard yet, mainly, for example, in Africa, and what the World Health Organization means particularly for these areas of the world, the most vulnerable.

PAUL O’BRIEN: Right. Well, the whole world is vulnerable. We think, particularly when you look at the combination of bad health systems or weak health systems and economic vulnerability, three areas are at greatest risk: sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East. You’ve got, in our — our report found that we think 500 million more people could go into poverty as a consequence of this, essentially wiping out all the progress that’s been made over the last 30 years, in some contexts, and, on an average, the last 10 years of progress.

Women are going to be, as is so often the case, facing the brunt of much of the consequences of this. In Bangladesh, for example, a million garment workers were laid off from their jobs. Eighty percent of them are women. In Kenya, flower factories just shut down, 30,000 people sent home. Most of them are women.

We don’t have enough protections in the United States, because we haven’t addressed the problems of chronic extreme inequality. But when you look at what’s going on outside of the United States, where 80% of the people on the — of the workers on the planet Earth have no health insurance, 2 billion people are in the informal economy.

So, if you’re in a context — let me just raise five contexts for you. These are the five largest slums in the world. There are slums in Karachi and Mumbai in Asia, in Cape Town and in Nairobi, in Kenya, and in Mexico City. Those five — they’re the largest single slums in larger cities — have 5.7 million people. When coronavirus hits those environments, first, there’s no healthcare system in those contexts that stock ventilators waiting for them. In some countries where we work, there are literally two or three ventilators in the whole country. But economically, people are living in close quarters. There’s no physical distancing possible. They get no sick pay. Their economies are being shut down. They’re being told, “Stay in place.” They’re not able to trade. They’re not able to access goods. In many contexts, their borders are now not allowing food, if they’re net importing countries.

So we have an economic crisis that is potentially coming, along with a health crisis, that is going to be profoundly harmful for many people, and potentially destabilizing in ways that we will all face the consequences of.

AMY GOODMAN: Your report is called “Dignity Not Destitution: An 'Economic Rescue Plan For All.'” You say Oxfam is calling for wealthy countries to agree to a global economic rescue package that includes canceling $1 trillion in debt payments for poorer countries. They say debt cancellation could free up to $400 billion, to free up money to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

PAUL O’BRIEN: Yeah. There are ways forward. And this is an incredibly important week, and today is an important day. You’ve got ministers of finance — the G20 is meeting, and ministers of finance from the 189 countries are meeting, to ask and answer the question: What can they do collectively to address the economic fallout of this crisis? You reported what’s going to happen to the global economy. We think there are three ways forward, and we’re calling on these governments to work together to show the kind of multilateral leadership that President Trump failed to show last night.

The first, as you mentioned, is debt. We’ve seen some early movement this week. Yesterday we got some — the beginnings of good news, in that the G7 supported some debt suspension, and the IMF agreed to a debt moratorium for and put in place some debt relief packages for 25 countries. That’s a start. It’s nowhere near enough. What we don’t want to see happen this year is that debt payments are essentially suspended in a moratorium and where the interest will accrue and countries are going to be forced to pay that over the following years, even if they suspend it for 2020. Think of it this way: In 45 countries, their health systems are a quarter the size of the debt payments that they have to make. So they have to make 400% the size of their health budgets just in paying their debt allocations. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, very quickly, I wanted to ask you about Yemen and Gaza.

PAUL O’BRIEN: From which perspectives? Because both of them are now facing both health and economic crisis. You’ve got, in those contexts — and we work in both of those contexts, with refugee populations and those who have been forcibly displaced, to try and reduce the level of conflict. But as you know, I was in Gaza not long ago. People are living in incredibly constrained quarters. It’s very dense. They have almost no economic activity at the best of times, because of restrictions that are put on the environment. And when you put COVID into that context, from an economic perspective, it creates potentially catastrophic levels of slowing down any form of economic activity. So, we are deeply worried about both Yemen and Gaza. As I said earlier, we think that the Middle East is probably one of the fulcrums of concern for harm from this crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul O’Brien, thank you so much for being with us. We’re going to link to your report. Paul O’Brien is vice president of Oxfam America. The new report, “Dignity Not Destitution: An 'Economic Rescue Plan For All' to tackle the Coronavirus crisis and rebuild a more equal world.

When we come back, we look at coronavirus in Indian Country. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Medicine” by Christopher Mike-Bidtah, a Diné musician also known as Def-I.

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