The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that an infectious disease outbreak in one corner of the world can, in a world closely linked by international travel and interconnected economies, quickly become a threat to everyone. In the last 100 days, countries around the globe have worked at unprecedented speeds to try to protect their citizens and stop the spread of this cruel virus.
But until the last country controls its piece of the pandemic, American lives will continue to be at risk. UN Secretary General António Guterres put it best when he wrote, “We are only as strong as the weakest health systems.”
Global pandemics require global responses. Underpinning these has been the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO). President Trump’s decision to cut off funding to the WHO in the middle of this pandemic is irresponsible, irrational, and simply the wrong thing to do.
The United States, the wealthiest country in the world, has experienced a staggering loss of life, an overwhelmed health workforce, and an economic crisis that threatens our way of life. The detrimental effects of Covid-19 are, and will continue to be, even more pronounced in the developing world, where fragile health systems already struggle to meet citizens’ needs. Even worse, the greatest impact will be felt by the world’s most vulnerable people: displaced and refugee communities in which consistent hand washing and social spacing is impossible in overcrowded settings with limited access to clean water.
Since the WHO’s founding, it has been an essential partner for U.S. global health assistance, as the primary UN agency with the technical capacity to support all countries, including those where U.S. development personnel are not present. The WHO serves as the global coordinator of clinical trials to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests, and treatments, and provides training and protective gear for health workers worldwide.
It would be unrealistic to say the WHO is undeserving of criticism. But it does not mandate how countries respond to crises. Instead, it provides the essential information and technical assistance needed by independent nations to make their own educated decisions. Recent reports that U.S. personnel working on rotation at WHO sent daily updates to the administration from the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak raise serious concerns that the president would once again rather blame the messenger — and risk lives in a global health emergency — than acknowledge his own mistakes.
My legislative team has calculated that the U.S. Congress has appropriated more than $2 billion in recent weeks for the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic, showing bipartisan recognition that American lives depend on helping low- and middle-income countries overcome this public health crisis. Unlike the Trump administration, I believe that U.S. taxpayer dollars are often maximized when we contribute to international efforts led by multilateral institutions. But instead of ensuring that the U.S. is a leader in the global response to this catastrophe, the president has attempted to avoid blame at home for repeatedly downplaying the severity of the pandemic here and failing to lead an effective mobilization of the testing capacity, contact-tracing resources, and personal protective equipment essential to containing the virus’s spread and keeping our frontline responders safe. Instead, he has attacked the World Health Organization.
In December, the world commemorated the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, which killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. This herculean achievement was made possible by the WHO, which launched a global eradication campaign in 1967 that was supported by countries all around the world, including the United States. When making our nation’s pledge to the campaign, President Lyndon Baines Johnson artfully stated that “as long as smallpox exists anywhere in the world, no country is safe from it.” A little more than a decade later, the World Health Assembly announced that smallpox had been eradicated from the face of the earth.
If we want to save American lives, if we want to be a leader in the international campaign to stop Covid-19 in its tracks, the U.S. cannot isolate itself and its response to the virus from the rest of the world. An isolationist stance will only lead to domestic and global failure. As long as Covid-19 exists in the world, no country, including the U.S., will be safe from its reach.
Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the senior U.S. Senator from Maryland, is a senior member of the Senate Finance Health Care Subcommittee and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.