Close to 370,000 infections and nearly 11,000 deaths in the United States. Nearly 10 million Americans filing unemployment claims. Unimaginable heartbreak and hardship, with worse to come. Given this still-developing emergency, and the fatal inadequacy of the U.S. government’s domestic preparedness and response so far, it is very hard to focus on the devastation that is about to strike the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.
But if President Trump doesn’t overcome his go-it-alone mind-set and take immediate steps to mobilize a global coalition to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, its spread will cause a catastrophic loss of life and make it impossible to restore normalcy in the United States in the foreseeable future.
Covid-19 is poised to tear through poor, displaced and conflict-affected communities around the world. Three billion people are unable to wash their hands at home, making it impossible to follow sanitation protocols. Because clinics in these communities have few or no gloves, masks, coronavirus tests, ventilators (the entire country of South Sudan has four) or ability to isolate infected patients, the contagion will be exponentially more lethal than in the developed countries it is currently ravaging.
The U.S. health system is utterly overwhelmed — yet we have 26 doctors for every 10,000 Americans. In Africa, where 1.3 billion people live and the virus has arrived, countries average fewer than three doctors per 10,000. From favelas in Brazil to refugee camps in Jordan, millions spend their lives penned into densely packed areas where the distancing saving lives in the United States is essentially out of the question.
And with hundreds of millions in developing countries dependent on the informal economy to make a living, the most effective public health measures would require giving up their only means of putting food on the table.
President Trump is unlikely to be moved by the human cost of what awaits the world’s most vulnerable communities. And he will surely be tempted to imagine that lasting closures of air and land routes will insulate the United States from what happens to them. But the weakest links in the chain will impede our own ability to stem the contagion and begin the recovery process.
That’s because the United States is intricately tied to the rest of the world, thanks to a global supply network that reaches into remote corners of the globe, American family ties to dozens of acutely at-risk nations and trade ties with dozens more.
In 2014, while serving as ambassador to the United Nations, I supported President Barack Obama’s efforts to build a 50-nation coalition to combat the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Ours was an all-hands-on-deck public health, logistic and diplomatic campaign to get countries to pool their resources to prevent hundreds of thousands of infections in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the spread of the deadly disease around the world.
Ebola and Covid-19 present extremely different challenges, especially now that the coronavirus has already progressed so widely. Ebola’s advance was limited by the heroic front-line efforts of West Africans who ultimately received mammoth international backing, but also by the fact that the disease could not be transmitted through the air and that it first took hold in remote areas with no direct flights to major international cities. Still, the relative (if belated) success of the Ebola response taught three urgently relevant lessons.
First, the United States leads no matter what it does. While President Trump’s retreat from international organizations, agreements and alliances has substantially weakened U.S. influence, the country remains the world’s largest economic, military and cultural power, and nations still look to us in times of crisis.
During the early days of the Ebola outbreak, when professionals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Agency for International Development took steps to battle the virus, other countries assumed the crisis was one that specialists and humanitarians alone could handle, rather than a four-alarm fire necessitating hands-on management by heads of state. When President Obama saw this was not enough and put forward a decisive blueprint for action, announcing his decision to deploy 3,000 troops and health workers to West Africa and convening fellow heads of state at the U.N. to press them to make contributions of their own, other countries followed.
With the United States taking a lead role supporting Liberians, the British government stepped up to play point in Sierra Leone, while France significantly increased its role in French-speaking Guinea. China, not wishing to be left behind, broke new ground, contributing humanitarian funding and sending medical workers to the region, where its military constructed a 100-bed treatment unit.
In today’s crisis, by contrast, when President Trump downplayed the Covid-19 threat, ridiculing epidemiological projections, other leaders took their cues, assuming that the U.S. government knew something they didn’t and deferring the tough restrictions needed to stem the spread until it was too late.
Today, instead of spearheading the development of a global plan to manufacture and allocate resources, Trump’s zero-sum response is infuriating allies and generating a ruthless scrum in which the United States must outbid other countries to gain access to scarce protective equipment. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on including “Wuhan virus” in a recent G-7 statement instead of generating constructive action from major powers, the United States was leading — signaling to others that this emergency was yet another vehicle for competition rather than coordination.
Second, the United Nations and its agencies can be important tools in the fight, but they will be only as effective as their powerful members allow them to be. In September 2014, I helped secure the passage of a U.N. Security Council Resolution that declared the Ebola crisis a “threat to international peace and security,” the first time a public health emergency was ever classified as such. American diplomats drummed up 134 co-sponsors, to this day the most in the 75-year history of the United Nations.
This measure, which China and Russia voted for, didn’t make Ebola any less deadly. But it shook up world leaders and offered a vital show of solidarity with the governments and peoples of West Africa in a context in which having a sense that the crisis could be solved played a decisive role in giving Africans the hope they needed to change behaviors that were aiding the spread.
Despite Mr. Trump’s disdain for international organizations like the World Health Organization (the U.S. contribution to which he attempted to halve just two months ago) and despite Washington’s own bungled domestic response, we nonetheless must immediately begin to build a broad and determined global anti-Covid coalition. Such a coalition must create hubs for sharing scientific data on the virus, testing and vaccine efforts, taking advantage of the staggered movement of the disease and every country’s ability to learn from infection cycles that have peaked earlier.
It must regularize frequent high-level political contacts to enable speedy decision-making, and the procuring and distribution of resources beyond the home front. It must apply pressure on those countries failing to come clean on case numbers. And it must assemble a mechanism that gathers volunteers, funds and in-kind contributions from U.N. member states, businesses and philanthropists to provide tailored support for particular vulnerable communities. Neither the U.N. secretary general nor the director general of the W.H.O. has the convening power or the leverage to perform this role unless the United States gets behind the effort.
Third, while the day may come when China can build and lead an effective global coalition, that day is not here. Much has been made of the fact that China is sending protective equipment to Ireland, Italy, Serbia and other nations, while the Trump administration has been forced to plead with South Korea and Russia for donations. China clearly sees both an opportunity to clean up the reputational damage done by its early mishandling of the crisis and a chance to showcase its generosity and superpower status.
There is no question that by the time this crisis is over, China will end up the largest international donor of precious medical provisions, which will hopefully help save countless lives. But sending supplies is not the same as leading the world.
Whatever its rhetoric about building a “Health Silk Road,” China has never built a global crisis coalition, in any sphere. Although China has more foreign diplomatic posts than the United States, Chinese officials have little experience hustling governments or private actors for contributions, while U.S. diplomats have been doing this for decades. Also, Chinese diplomats will not urge, for example, Bangladesh to turn on the internet in its refugee camps to allow public education, or Egypt to stop suppressing information. The United States and China urgently have to do what neither does easily, which is to put the blame game and larger competition aside, identify their comparative strengths and join forces.
It may well be that Mr. Trump’s inability to recognize the extent to which U.S. security is tied to that of others makes him incapable of reversing course and building a global coalition. But given the pressure he feels to restart the economy and normal life, this should be the wake-up call he needs that walls won’t protect us. Unless the United States exerts leadership to prevent Covid-19 from raging out of control abroad, the crisis will not end at home.
Samantha Power (@SamanthaJPower) is a former United States permanent representative to the United Nations and the author, most recently, of “The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir.”
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