Pandemics Don’t Know Borders, International Cooperation Critical

April 23, 2020 By Luke Wenz

When the dust settles and the COVID-19 crisis fades, policymakers and world leaders will pivot from debating immediate solutions for this global health emergency to considering how to be better prepared for the next disease threat. The catastrophic domestic and global effects of coronavirus begs the question: why was the world so unprepared for this virus?

In search of some answers, I recently spoke with Ambassador Roger Meece, former U.S. Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2004 – 2007) and Malawi (2000 – 2003) and a member of the USGLC’s Washington State Advisory Committee. Throughout Meece’s distinguished career, he has worked at the epicenter of two global health threats: the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Malawi, and Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

While you were serving in Africa, the continent was experiencing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Can you speak to the impact that you saw on the ground in Africa of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Program?

Ambassador Meece: It was, in my opinion, absolutely critical. I was seeing first-hand the devastation that was going on. It was becoming increasingly difficult during my tenure as ambassador in Malawi to schedule appointments and such because they were so frequently being canceled – because people had to attend funerals.

You found more AIDS orphans just on the streets. And you also think ‘What is the longer-term impact of this?’ Because these kids, insofar as they’re able to grow up at all, are not going to have the benefit of education, family, training, and more.

In 2003, President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). It has provided $85 billion to HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention and research— the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in history,  and has saved over 18 million lives.

The PEPFAR program was absolutely instrumental in terms of getting a handle on this and starting to bring down the infection rates. It’s still a major problem, but I cannot even conceive of what the damage would have been through southern Africa, and the rest of the world as well, without that program. Absolutely instrumental. It really was a lifesaver. Frankly, that’s too mild of a word. It was key to addressing what was going to be absolute devastation to the entire region and beyond.

“It really was a lifesaver. Frankly, that’s too mild of a word”

The region faced other disease outbreaks during your ambassadorships – like Ebola. The responses to these outbreaks have all required swift international collaboration. Why are these international responses important, and how do they help keep all of us safe?

Ambassador Meece: It seems to be obvious that when you are dealing with pandemics that don’t know borders, it’s critical to have international cooperation to deal effectively with these threats. It seems so obvious that we are better off for our own interest, as is the rest of the world, [when] we share research, information, knowledge, that is being conducted everywhere.

“Ebola has spread through the Democratic Republic of the Congo several times over the last few decades. Since 2018, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus killed 2,250+ Congolese and infected nearly 1,200 more.”

The right way to do this is to have networks in place that are vibrant and active – and we can take advantage of them when needed, so we can effectively and efficiently deal with these issues as they happen.

“Making full use local knowledge, partnered with the impressive expertise of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions, and governments is absolutely crucial.”

What lessons do you think we’ve learned from these past outbreaks? And what lessons have we missed?

Ambassador Meece: The hopeful part of me says certainly we have learned from those things – I hope at least. It is also clear that we have more lessons to learn, or at least more people need to learn them. It seems obvious that utilizing cooperative interests and seeking, collectively, how to do things better, is where we need to strive to be.

From your perspective, why is it important that the United States continue to invest in global health initiatives in the world?

Ambassador Meece: Let’s think about it for a moment – it doesn’t take that long to realize that this is not something that occurs once a millennium. These health threats are occurring frequently. If we do not stay engaged and supportive through bilateral efforts, through institutions such as CDC and WHO, we are just inviting further catastrophes for ourselves.

Again, we [the United States] have a direct interest in this, even aside from the moral and humanitarian concerns.