The last four years have seen a devastating erosion of American leadership on global health. From severely restricting access to reproductive choice for women around the world with an expanded global gag rule, to initiating the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization during a global pandemic, to sowing seeds of doubt about science, the Trump administration retreated from global cooperation at every opportunity.
The result? A sicker and more vulnerable America — and world.
Though Congress rightfully pushed back in important ways — ensuring, most of all, strong funding for many bilateral and multilateral health programs — President Biden will have to work quickly to undo the damage of the past four years to strengthen global health policy and save lives. Global health must be a top priority in the first 100 days of the Biden administration.
Reassuringly, Biden has already signaled support for the first step: immediately stopping the U.S. withdrawal from WHO and releasing the nearly $300 million in funding the Trump administration froze in 2020. These funds are essential to the current pandemic response and other global health emergencies. This early action will send a clear, decisive message that the U.S. is a proud partner of WHO and it trusts the organization to safeguard the health of all people.
The U.S. has historically been the WHO’s largest and most important partner, providing financial, scientific, and technical resources that have enabled WHO to make incredible public health gains around the world. This support has fueled feats like eradicating smallpox; mobilizing the world to end polio, measles, and malaria; reaching 26 million people with HIV treatment; providing rapid, essential health services in dozens of humanitarian emergencies; and even coordinating annual flu vaccines.
Today, strong fiscal and scientific collaboration between the U.S. and WHO is once again needed to end the Covid-19 pandemic and prevent these hard-won gains from backsliding.
The Biden administration should further show its commitment to solidarity with the world’s global health community by immediately signing onto the ACT Accelerator, a WHO-led global effort to enable equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that has not joined the COVAX Facility, the pillar of the ACT Accelerator dedicated to globally coordinating vaccine access. The U.S. should not only commit vital financial resources, as already promised through $4 billion in the late-2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act, but should also bring to bear the outstanding technical resources of the U.S., from government; science sectors, including the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries; and civil society, which would boost the ACT Accelerator’s chances of success.
Joining this collective effort to get Covid-19 tools to everyone fairly would not only show compassionate moral leadership — demonstrating a commitment to the principle that everyone, no matter where they live, deserves a chance to not only survive but thrive — but is also in America’s self-interest.
Equitable access to these tools is the fastest way to end the global pandemic and will enable the global and American economy to bounce back far faster than going it alone. In fact, recent findings from the Eurasia Group estimate that the U.S. would likely gain more economically than any other high-income country if new Covid-19 tools were made equitably available in 2021. By becoming part of the international coalition behind the ACT Accelerator, the Biden administration can help save countless lives, both here and abroad, and set America back on a course for economic prosperity.
The Biden administration must also look beyond the crises of today and toward the future, working with partners and allies to strengthen global health investments, international systems, and global agencies — including the United Nations — be better prepared for the global health challenges yet to come. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that the world underinvests in health systems and global health institutions on a massive scale, especially in areas like pandemic preparedness and surveillance.
Increases in flexible, sustainable funding for WHO from the U.S. government and other member states will be vital to building up health systems and the health workforce in order to prevent future epidemics from spiraling out of control.
The pandemic has also shown us that reforms are needed to the International Health Regulations and WHO’s authority. Over the long term, the Biden administration should prioritize working with WHO and alongside allies to review the recommendations coming out of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness, the body tasked with independently evaluating the WHO and its partners’ global Covid-19 response, and use those insights to develop and forge commonsense recommendations to enhance global capacities for pandemic preparedness and response.
The U.S. should also support the ongoing reform efforts at WHO, which have been a long-standing priority for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to help the agency become more fit-for-purpose for tomorrow’s needs.
Finally, by fast-tracking political appointments to U.S. health and international development agencies as well as to its U.N. missions, the Biden administration can strengthen U.S. capacity to advance reforms needed to help multilateral partners better handle future health challenges.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has sharply shown, the U.S. and the rest of the world rely on a strong, well-supported, and functioning WHO. The Biden administration will be wise, and the American people well served, to ensure a robust, visible commitment to WHO and global cooperation. By forging a new era of American partnership on global health and improving WHO’s ability to safeguard the lives of people around the world, this new chapter will not only end the hardships of this global pandemic, but lay the groundwork for a safer and healthier world for all.
Kate Dodson is the vice president for global health strategy at the United Nations Foundation, a nonprofit organization that acts as a strategic partner for the United Nations.