American leadership and engagement overseas has never been more important

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
April 16, 2020

We are living in surreal times.

We wake up every morning to reports of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and track the exponential growth of the number of infected and dead, especially those close to home: in our community and in our country. We also track the economic devastation that has befallen every part of our country. Too many of us are out of work as restaurants, bars, hotels, museums close, and as flights, trains and buses are canceled. NCAA March Madness is out, as are the Olympics. In many major cities, we are being told to not leave our homes for anything other than essential errands – going to the grocery store, the doctor, the pharmacy. You have to wonder if this a Stephen King novel.

In times like these we, understandably, look inward. We focus on our families, friends and communities. But despite our very human need to attend to our own first, we cannot forget those very fragile and vulnerable communities, families, children and girls around the world. The plight of those outside our communities and our country has become nearly invisible. But right now is when they need us the most.

A recent article in Kaiser Health News noted that COVID-19 cases in the poorest countries are now rising quickly. If we should have learned something from the last several months as the pandemic spread, it is that no one is immune. Outbreaks in low-income countries will affect us all. To see a most extreme example closer to home look no further than what is happening in Venezuela, a country close to becoming a failed state. The country’s health systems, already hugely stretched before the pandemic struck, are simply incapable of responding to the needs of its population now that the disease is spreading. Our inaction and lack of attention will likely result in a giant “hot spot” of further infection right here in our hemisphere.

And, as noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, the situation is even worse for the estimated 70 million refugees around the world. Crowded conditions in many refugee camps are already “regularly plagued by disease and violence.” And it is likely that conditions in many of these camps will further deteriorate as the pandemic weakens both humanitarian response (through limitations placed on the movement of people and supplies or as relief organizations now compete for limited medical supplies and equipment needed seemingly everywhere) and state authority.

What to do? The immediate response has been to close our borders. Stop travel. But closing our borders, or theirs, is unlikely to work long-term for the same reason that strict large-scale quarantines are never a fail-safe solution to stopping the spread of disease. It is basically impossible to completely seal off the sick population from the healthy. Seeking to close off populations from each other also prevents the flow of medical personnel, medicines and medical equipment to where it is needed. In other words, these measures are never guaranteed and end up taxing other resources needed to manage the emergency.

Almost every action taken by governments, including the U.S., in the last month has been crafted to shut movement down, including to aid workers who might help improve the situation abroad. In so doing, the humanitarian community’s efforts to get assistance to where it is most needed overseas has been compromised. Mitigating the impact on our neighbors and the international community can only be beneficial to the U.S. long-term. American leadership and engagement abroad has been an essential element to successful worldwide crisis responses for decades. The U.S., working with multilateral entities, needs to take a few crucial steps:

  • Mobilize and give direction to private foundations and corporations in the U.S. and abroad;
  • Collaborate to provide protection and financial support, as well as share evidence and learnings, with humanitarian responders to this pandemic;
  • Ensure safe passage of equipment and responders, assure functioning supply chains to prevent hoarding, and enable deployment of essential equipment, medicines and hospital supplies to those places that need them the most (in our country or outside it); and
  • Support economic livelihoods and prevent gender-based violence and the exploitation of the most vulnerable, as the pandemic evolves.

As with the effective response to the Ebola crisis, the world and the humanitarian community need to see U.S. leadership again. Ultimately, trying to seal ourselves off from the world is counterproductive. The best way to help ourselves within our borders is to help others outside our borders. In addition to being the humane thing to do, focusing on helping those most vulnerable outside our borders is also in our national interest.

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