In December, delegates from more than 180 countries met in Switzerland to discuss the International Treaty for Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness, and Response, which had initially been proposed in December 2021. Support for it gained traction as the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted concerns about global vaccine inequity, genomic data-sharing, and more. The December talks productively focused on these issues and concluded with delegates agreeing to another round of negotiation in February.
Despite its seemingly blasé and technocratic focus, the pandemic treaty has come under fire in the United States. Conservative commentators have attacked the treaty as an attempt by a biased World Health Organization to impose endless lockdowns and curtail Americans’ rights. In Congress, any future pandemic accord will likely face stiff resistance in the Senate, as right-wing analysts have expressed concerns that a treaty could constrain American national sovereignty. Such opposition has derailed a number of treaties, ranging from the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
We find much of the opposition to the treaty hard to fathom. It is not an attempt to restrict America’s national sovereignty or curtail citizens’ rights. Instead, it could provide an important avenue for the U.S. to strengthen global health — which has direct effects on Americans’ health — as well as resolve concerns over WHO bias and bolster the influence of America’s values worldwide.
Based on the current draft, the new pandemic treaty would greatly aid health around the globe. In 2020, poor data-sharing between countries at the onset of the pandemic allowed Covid-19 to spread rapidly, including in the U.S. Later on, shortages of vaccines in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America fueled the rise of the Omicron variant that eventually surged in the U.S. and greatly prolonged the pandemic. Together, these costly mistakes cost more than 1 million American lives and trillions of dollars of damage to the economy.
This pandemic treaty, however, could help avoid such calamities. Provisions to facilitate data-sharing between countries could help U.S. scientists and public health officials make quicker and more informed decisions to limit the spread of a disease, while clauses on ensuring an equitable global distribution of vaccines could prevent the rise of dangerous variants of a pathogen.
Beyond these benefits, this treaty could resolve many complaints that conservative critics have about the WHO in the first place. For example, some have argued that a pandemic treaty would empower the organization that many see as being anti-American and influenced by foreign governments.
If the WHO was biased against the U.S., a pandemic treaty would be a useful way to rectify the issue. It would give the U.S. a powerful seat at the table, allowing it to use its diplomatic and economic weight to support the promotion of American and allied civil servants at the WHO. These personnel often greatly influence international institutions — one study found that international personnel at the United Nations often exercise significant discretionary authority on everything from arms control negotiations to financing post-civil war reconstruction efforts. America’s influence on personnel appointments via the pandemic treaty could ensure that WHO officials remain friendly to American values and assuage concerns about anti-American bias.
Many of the arguments proliferating against the pandemic treaty have little merit. A pandemic treaty would not turn over final decision-making power on public health or lockdowns to the WHO — such authority would remain in the hands of the American people and their representatives. Also, concerns about a treaty limiting America’s national sovereignty are misleading, as it is unlikely that restrictions on national sovereignty would find their way into a treaty given the number of countries expressing similar hesitations and desiring a more moderate approach.
Signing onto the pandemic treaty would be a valuable opportunity to bolster American influence in the developing world. For decades, the U.S. has systematically undervalued diplomatic and economic engagement with sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and other developing regions. The result has allowed other nations to make substantial inroads, whether that means China’s rapid investments in Latin America or Russia’s massive arms sales to nations in sub-Saharan Africa. As projections show that some of these countries are likely to have double-digit economic growth and exert serious clout in the future, the U.S. can no longer afford to ignore these countries if it is serious about upholding its global leadership.
Good-faith participation in the pandemic treaty represents a salient way to increase U.S. influence in these regions. Gross global inequities in the distribution of vaccines and therapeutics have left many low-income countries and their citizens distrustful towards Western institutions and more eager to look elsewhere, giving countries like China and Russia valuable opportunities to build support. But if the U.S. effectively used a pandemic accord to support the development of health care systems in low-income countries, the result could greatly improve regional public opinion about the U.S. and foster closer bilateral relations.
Closer relations could help American investors and security planners build new partnerships in these regions, while improved public opinion of the U.S. could fuel the rise of pro-American leaders in the long term. A pandemic treaty is key to reaping these benefits. The long-lasting, society-wide nature of the Covid-19 pandemic made health care a uniquely salient issue to many in low-income countries, so U.S. support on this vital issue would exceptionally benefit its diplomatic reputation worldwide.
U.S. support for the International Treaty for Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness, and Response is good for both global health equity and promoting America’s values abroad. Rather than reject a treaty under vague national sovereignty concerns and conspiratorial fears, American policymakers should embrace good-faith participation in this new pandemic treaty. The world — and the U.S. — will be healthier and wealthier for it.
Sergio Imparato is a lecturer on government at Harvard University and author of “The Sovereign President” (Pisa University Press, 2015). Sarosh Nagar is a researcher in the Department of Economics at Harvard University.
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