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Trump announces halt to WHO funding, NYC revises death toll: Wednesday’s coronavirus news

Here’s what you need to know today.

World Health Organization leaders Michael Ryan, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and Maria Van Kerkhove attend a press briefing on Covid-19 in Geneva on March 11, 2020.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

President Donald Trump has announced he will stop US financial support for the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of a disease outbreak that is undeniably global: As of April 15, there have been more than 2 million confirmed cases and nearly 130,000 deaths worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.

The Trump administration blames the international organization for favoring China and making the coronavirus pandemic worse, while the president is trying to sidestep criticism of his own response to the outbreak. Though questions have been raised about the WHO’s handling of the pandemic, Trump has come under fire for taking this action even as the entire planet tries to fight the coronavirus.

In the United States, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has risen to more than 610,000. New York City, the epicenter of the US crisis, revised its death toll Tuesday to account for people who are presumed to have died at home from Covid-19 but were never tested. That revision led to nearly 4,000 more deaths being added to the total — and now, more than 10,000 people are said to have died of coronavirus in the city as of April 14.

On the economic front, there’s more grim news: US retailers reported the worst decline in sales in approximately three decades, showing just how much the coronavirus has upended the country’s economy.

Here’s what you need to know today.

Trump puts WHO funding on hold

President Donald Trump is halting US funding of the World Health Organization over what he claims are its failures in handling the coronavirus outbreak. On Tuesday, he accused the global health institution of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”

Trump has also accused the WHO of pushing back on his decision to ban travel from China in January. That’s not exactly what happened, however: The WHO didn’t criticize the US directly. It instead issued a statement that appealed to countries not to take measures that might restrict international trade and travel.

According to the New York Times, the US provided more than $550 million of the WHO’s current $6 billion biennial budget, which means Trump pulling funds would be a huge blow to the organization that is trying to manage and coordinate the response to this global pandemic, among its other initiatives.

The World Health Organization has received its fair share of criticism during this pandemic, including whether it was too deferential to China at the start of the outbreak and whether it should have declared a global health emergency far earlier than it did.

Trump, who’s been amping up his criticism of the WHO for more than a week now, has made these critiques himself. But he also seems to be trying to pin the blame on the organization for the US’s own botched response. However, the president’s critics argue he deserves the blame for coronavirus failings in the US: Although Trump did close US borders to China, he failed to use that time to ramp up US testing capabilities or acquire medical supplies, forcing the US into lockdown to avoid overwhelming the health care system.

Public health experts and world leaders condemned Trump’s decision, arguing that a global pandemic is not the time to undercut the WHO. In a tweet, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said that “halting funding for the World Health Organization ... is as dangerous as it sounds,” adding that “the world needs WHO more than ever.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that the WHO must be supported, as it is “absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19.”

The WHO does not have a perfect track record on the coronavirus outbreak, but it’s also only as strong as the more than 190 countries that belong to and invest in the organization. Rather than empowering the WHO to coordinate a global response, some countries, like the US, are instead turning inward. This could make it harder to bring the outbreak under control, as it’s going to take a massive international effort to stop the global spread.

New York City revises death count

As the coronavirus pandemic engulfed New York, the city began to witness another alarming trend: an increase in people dying at home. A spokesperson for the New York City medical examiner’s office told Gothamist on April 7 that about 200 residents were dying at home every day, compared to 20 to 25 a day before the coronavirus hit. Frequently, those individuals died without being tested for Covid-19, meaning they weren’t included in the city’s official death count, even if they were suspected of having been infected.

The city later said it would change this policy, which was expected to dramatically increase New York’s death toll — and it did. On Tuesday, the city added more than 3,700 deaths to its official count, all of whom are people suspected to have died of Covid-19 but did not test positive.

That brought the city’s death toll past 10,000 as of Tuesday. No other state or city in the US has even come close to that number. Adding suspected cases isn’t a perfect system, of course, but it may offer a clearer picture of coronavirus fatalities both in NYC and the country at large.

As ProPublica reported, New York City isn’t the only city with a spike in at-home deaths. Experts said such increases could stem from people who didn’t seek treatment (or who were told to stay home) and later died of coronavirus without ever getting tested. But the rise in at-home deaths may also be a larger consequence of an overwhelmed health care system: People are declining to seek care for other conditions, so they aren’t receiving the help that they might need.

US retailers have toughest month ever

The more economic data the US gets, the worse the situation seems to be. Retail sales declined in March by 8.7 percent, the Commerce Department said Wednesday, the largest-ever decline in retail spending since tracking began in 1992 and the worst month since fall 2008, during the Great Recession.

Basically, this means Americans aren’t buying things — not cars (auto dealers and car-parts stores lost 25.6 percent) or clothing (sales are down 50.5 percent). Consumer spending is critical to the US economy, but many Americans are under stay-at-home orders, have been laid off, or are fearful of losing their jobs — all of which means the ability, need, or even desire to go out and buy things isn’t there right now. Considering that a lot of the US’s most stringent lockdown measures didn’t go into effect until mid-March, the picture is expected to be even worse in April.

As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explained, this is why simply reopening the economy — a strategy some of Trump’s advisers recommend — isn’t a quick fix, since it “doesn’t change the fact that people with falling incomes aren’t going to go make major purchases.”

The public health crisis is intimately linked to the economic one, but they’re not identical, and Congress and the Federal Reserve have many options to bolster the economy — like sending money to state governments and doing additional rounds of direct financial transfers to households — even as the country waits for an improved situation.

Time for some good news

As Vox’s Brian Resnick wrote in a beautiful story about plant resilience, “Life yearns for more.Or, as Ian Malcom — Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park — put it, “Life finds a way.”

With many stuck in quarantine, wildlife, at least, is finding a way, in places like Yosemite National Park in California — where coyotes, bears, and bobcats are making a comeback amid an absence of human tourists. Park officials said this often happens when the park is closed during government shutdowns, but the park has been closed since March 20 because of the coronavirus, and it may end up being the longest closure yet.

“The bear population has quadrupled,” Dane Peterson, who works in the park, told the Los Angeles Times. He said that while bears, bobcats, and coyotes are always around, they “usually hang back at the edges, or move in the shadows.”

This isn’t the only place where life has found a way; Venice saw clear canals and fish once the cruise ships and traffic stopped because of the coronavirus. Goats took over the Welsh town of Llandudno. Even the rats are taking over, which actually ... well, let’s draw the line somewhere. This is a bad thing. Plus, it might not actually be good for the rats.

But it’s nice to give the animal kingdom a bit of a vacation from humans. Maybe we should think about that a bit more, whenever we do head back out into the world. Except for the rats, though — I do not want to face the rat army that wins the “rat battle” for territory in the New York City subway system.

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