Imagine if 600,000 Americans and 4 million worldwide had been killed in a terrorist attack, and 50,000 were still being killed every week. Would our response look like what we are doing to fight COVID-19 across the world? The fight against COVID-19 is a global war but policymakers are not behaving accordingly. As a result, we are losing more battles than we are winning, and the scars will haunt our international relations for years to come.
Pick a spot on the map and you’ll find we are in collective retreat against the enemy. Melbourne and Sydney in Australia are back in lockdown. Indonesia is now Asia’s new epicenter for cases and deaths, and new infections have been rising rapidly in South Asia. In Africa, South Africa heads a long list of countries where cases have been skyrocketing. Closer to home, infections and fatalities rage unchecked in many countries in Latin America. Meanwhile, against the advice of many scientists, the British government has lifted all public health restrictions while its daily COVID-19 mortality has doubled and daily cases passed 50,000 for the first time since January.
Across developing countries, public health officials are hunkering down for the fourth wave that will hit them in the months ahead: hospitals at capacity, oxygen shortages, overflowing mortuaries, lockdowns that devastate economic and educational activities. Their political leaders are even more worried about managing the rising frustration of populations who feel trapped in a prolonged nightmare while their TV screens show scenes of—perhaps premature—celebration and post-pandemic recovery in rich countries. The outbreaks of violence and unrest that we have seen in Colombia, South Africa, and Myanmar each have their specific trigger but a common thread is the tension and frustration added by the pandemic and the inadequacy of measures to mitigate its impact. Here in some parts of the United States, we have shown that a major turnaround is possible in as little as six months through widespread vaccination and socially responsible behavior. That makes us safer but every month of unchecked growth in new infections anywhere on the globe is an open invitation to the virus to mutate and come back as a variant against which our current vaccines won’t be as effective.
To truly protect ourselves—and because it is the right thing to do—we need to fight this pandemic wherever it is raging anywhere. That is the fundamental truth that must drive the priority, scope and urgency of our actions.
Over the past year and half, we have seen a lot of talk but much less action from global leaders. Pledges have not been translated into delivery and the pledges weren’t enough to start with. Only a little over 1 percent of Africa’s 1.4 billion people have been fully vaccinated, and an optimistic assessment would see that number rise to only 10 percent by the end of this year.
Given the severe implications of this crisis at home and abroad, the US administration must act. Here is what we need to do—now—to turn the tide and start winning the war.
Treat the pandemic as the national security and international policy imperative
The Biden administration rightly made getting on top of the pandemic the number one priority for its domestic agenda. And the results speak for themselves. Internationally, however, this is still one of several priorities not just for the United States but for the G7, the G20, and the international institutions that deal with global health and economic development.
The first step in defeating this virus globally is to make ending the COVID-19 pandemic the number one international priority for the US Administration going forward. It also has to be the top priority for all our partner countries and the responsible international agencies but US leadership will be an essential ingredient for any exceptional international campaign.
Produce a credible, time-bound, and costed global battle plan and assign clear accountability for its implementation
A sad reality of global health is that no one is in charge. The alphabet soup of WHO, World Bank, UNICEF, CEPI, GAVI, COVAX, IMF, and WTO all play important roles in fighting the pandemic but none of them has been charged with producing a credible and costed operational battle plan to get the world vaccinated. A year into the pandemic, four of the leading international agencies have set up a joint task force—I’d prefer that they think of it as a war-room—to try and produce a coordinated global response. As their largest and most important shareholder, the US should ask them for a global battle plan by September 1 and to nominate a single official who has the authority and accountability to deliver. That plan needs to have an authoritative monthly delivery plan for vaccines, logistics for getting those vaccines to each country in need, support to ensure those countries will have the capacity in place to deploy the vaccines when they arrive, and a war-footing effort to scale short- and long-term vaccine production in every available factory worldwide.
Financing is not an acceptable constraint
Money shortfalls are a sorry excuse for explaining where we are today. There is no excuse for the time and attention that senior policymakers are having to devote to filling a gap in the low tens of billions of dollars to get the world vaccinated. The Administration has just proposed a $3.5 trillion budget and the G7 countries spent $12 trillion last year responding to the crisis. And yet, the ACT Accelerator has a funding gap of $16.7 billion to deliver tests, vaccines, and treatments around the world—for perspective, that’s a third of what the world spent on cosmetic surgery in 2018. It’s time to stop “passing the parcel” at every international meeting and take a decision at the upcoming G20 summit to do what it takes to combat the worst health and human security risk in almost a century.
Fix the system for now—and for the future
Given the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot afford another failed response and must invest now to prevent and control other pandemics which are likely to come. We must act now to improve surveillance of emerging threats from COVID-19 variants and other viruses and put in place larger vaccine and personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturing capacity, so we do not lose months of crucial time waiting for these to be available. We must also hold institutions and countries to account for detecting emerging epidemics and containing them before they get out of hand. The G20-sponsored High Level Independent Panel on Financing Pandemic Preparedness and Response, on which I served, has called for an additional $75 billion over the next five years, or $15 billion each year, of international financing for pandemic prevention and preparedness to achieve those goals. This funding will build capacity to deal with emerging COVID-19 variants, help manage other ongoing diseases and address the threat of future pandemics.
No one is safe until everyone is safe has become an overused platitude but in this case it’s gravely true. For our own safety and because it is the right thing to do, a war footing is necessary to end this global pandemic. That will only happen if the US makes it the number one international priority and then builds a multilateral coalition of allies and institutions to do the same. Together we can deliver a world where we live free from fear and uncertainty about the resurgence of this deadly enemy. That should be our goal and mission for the months ahead.