After a brief hiatus, John Oliver returned to hosting his show, “Last Week Tonight,” on Sunday, where he delivered a passionate defense of the World Health Organization in light of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agency amid a global pandemic.
Before diving into the main story of the night, Oliver first gave a brief overview of “another busy week” of news — from the confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, to Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden’s dueling town halls.
Oliver characterized the hearings as “two full days of questions and non-answers,” most aptly summed up by Barrett holding up a notepad that only had the words “United States Senate” on the letterhead.
“It’s really not that impressive at all, partly because it’s emblematic of the fact that she dodged almost everything she was asked, and partly because this whole hearing was preordained by the Republicans,” Oliver said.
But while the judge “was evasive,” during the days of questioning, Oliver said Barrett was revealing in certain moments, such as “refusing to say that she accepted climate change as a scientific fact, arguing that Roe v. Wade is not a super-precedent, and referring to gay people as having a sexual preference,” the latter of which Oliver described as “just ridiculous.”
“It’s clearly not a preference,” he said. “No one just chooses to be attracted to the same sex or a different sex or to Adam Driver.”
Oliver then pivoted to discussing the televised events for Biden and Trump that occurred last Thursday. After the president refused to participate in a virtual debate — the Commission on Presidential Debates changed the format of the second face-off due to coronavirus concerns — both candidates elected to host a town hall, during which they would field questions from the audience members.
Biden had already lined up a televised event with ABC when it was announced that Trump would be appearing on NBC News at the same time — a decision for which the network received backlash, but Oliver said it was, “if nothing else, very much on-brand for them.”
The “high point of the night” for Trump, Oliver said, was likely when a woman asking him a question first complimented his smile and referred to him as “handsome.” Though even that moment did not last long, he noted, as the audience member — a self-proclaimed “daughter of immigrants” whose parents fled “Eastern Europe due to religious persecution” — then asked the president about his efforts to cut the DACA program.
“That might actually be the perfect way to ask Trump a question,” Oliver said. “You have a lovely smile. Anyway, you’d have doomed my ancestors to die in the Holocaust.”
Oliver then shifted to the topic that would dominate the bulk of the show: the World Health Organization.
“You may already be aware of it as one the president’s favorite punching bags,” Oliver began.
Oliver then played a clip of Trump saying that the “World Health Organization should be ashamed of themselves.”
“I’m not happy with the World Health Organization,” Trump says in the video. “They’re a puppet of China.”
Over the past six months — as the coronavirus pandemic has dragged on, and cases continue to climb in the United States — Trump has “consistently tried to deflect blame” for his handling of the crisis onto the World Health Organization, China, “and the close relationship that he claims the two have,” Oliver said.
Earlier this year, Oliver noted, the president turned that “criticism into real action” — when Trump announced the country would be terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization.
“The thing is, Trump is not bluffing,” Oliver said. “He’s already submitted a notice of withdrawal to the [United Nations] to take effect next July. So the clock is ticking here.”
Oliver then proceeded to lay out the consequences of what that decision actually means — detailing the importance of the organization’s work, the validity of criticisms against the agency, and “what we might be putting at stake.”
The World Health Organization, Oliver said, has grown since its founding in 1948 to be comprised of “nearly every country on Earth,” with its main purpose being to coordinate “global responses to a wide range of health issues, including alerting the world to threat, fighting diseases, and improving access to care.”
One of the organization’s biggest powers, Oliver said, is that it has the ability to “declare a public health emergency of international concern and issue recommendations on how countries should respond” — a critically important caveat, he said, because it “has absolutely no power on its own to enforce these recommendations.”
But even despite those “significant limitations,” Oliver said, the World Health Organization has still managed to accomplish a number of milestones, such as the eradication of smallpox and the development of the seasonal flu vaccine.
“The [World Health Organization] is also currently tracking and responding to dozens of infectious disease outbreaks around the world, including monkeypox, yellow fever, and an ongoing Ebola outbreak,” Oliver said. “And when, let’s say hypothetically, a pandemic breaks out, the organization can provide a critical role as a central clearinghouse of information, conducting investigations and releasing information to the public.”
The organization currently operates on a budget of $2.4 billion, Oliver said, “which might sound like a lot, but it’s around the same amount it costs to run a single US hospital.”
Oliver then proceeded to break down how the World Health Organization is funded, due to one of Trump’s largest complaints being that, relative to China, the United States pays the agency far more — the reason for which can be traced back to the Ronald Reagan administration, he explained.
The president’s second big complaint? “The [World Health Organization] is a literal pipe organ for China,” Oliver said, “which, again, it literally isn’t.”
“Now what they were essentially arguing there is the [World Health Organization] mishandled the pandemic because they’re deferential to China,” Oliver said. “And while there is some truth to each half of that statement, they’re not true together.”
While the organization “arguably took too long to advise universal mask-wearing and to clearly acknowledge the threat of indoor airborne transmission,” there is “no evidence” the agency did so to appease China, Oliver said.
“In the early stages of a pandemic, even experts tend to — and I’m going to use a technical term here — not know what the [expletive] is going on,” Oliver said.
Simply put, Oliver said, the president’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization benefits no one: the country is unable to accomplish the work of the agency alone, and will not “make friends” by suddenly cutting off funding in the midst of a pandemic.
“It’s taking the fire engines away in the middle of fighting the fire 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,” Oliver said. “It’s the worst possible decision at the worst possible time.”
The episode ended on a lighter note, with Oliver revisiting his mock-feud with the city of Danbury, Connecticut. After criticizing the area a few months ago “for no clear reason” on a previous show, citizens responded by insulting Oliver on YouTube and Mayor Mark Boughton declared that he would name the city’s sewer plant after him, Oliver said.
Boughton later said it was a joke, but in order to “force his hand,” Oliver said he would donate over $50,000 to local charities if he made the name official. In a near-unanimous vote, city officials eventually agreed to name the plant after Oliver — but Boughton required that Oliver be there “when the ribbon was cut” to seal the deal.
And so Oliver did just that — “taking all necessary precautions, not just because of the pandemic, but because I was in Danbury, Connecticut,” he said.