Rising to the Challenge: America’s Global COVID-19 Response

May 12, 2021 By Joan Steiger

America’s diplomacy and development tools are on the front lines of the global COVID-19 response—and during today’s hearing on COVID-19 and the international response, both Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed that U.S. global engagement is a critical component of our country’s own health and economic recovery.

  • Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “Let me start by saying, for our fellow citizens across the country who may be wondering why we’re so focused on this internationally, as long as there’s COVID anywhere, there can be COVID everywhere. We cannot hermetically seal off the United States of America; viruses understand no borders, no oceans, no walls, nothing. And so, it is in our own national interest in security, as well as being a global citizen, to meet this challenge.”
  • Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID), Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “I’ve consistently argued that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last pandemic to threaten the American people, and indeed the world. We have to get serious about preparedness and prevention, so we can get ahead of the next outbreak before it becomes a global pandemic.”

What’s at Stake?

Senators on both sides of the aisle made similar comments in today’s hearing about what’s at stake in getting the global COVID-19 response right:

  • Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations (SFOPS): “This is a critical moment for us to seize this opening to re-engage with the world. We’ve got the experience [and] we’ve got the deserved reputation as a global public health leader. We invested in, innovated, and developed the most effective vaccines in the world… We really can only talk about the possibility of the pandemic ever ending if we get to a point where it is not mutating, and we don’t have new variants still developing—as this disturbing new variant in India has—that are more transmissive and more lethal.”
  • Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) also spoke to the win-win of U.S. global engagement on COVID-19, highlighting economic and health considerations specifically: “If we lead from the moral high ground—which is not only good business in this case—economically, it means that we respond quicker, our trade patterns return…It puts us in a better position long term, and at the same time back here at home, we don’t suffer the mutations and changes that are going to come back to haunt us if we don’t get this pandemic under control [here] and in other areas of the world, so I think it’s a win-win.”
  • Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH): “[The COVID pandemic] has tragically taken more than 3 million lives over the last year. It’s also created a global food security and malnutrition crisis… As of April 2021, the World Food Programme estimates that 296 million people in 35 countries where it works are without sufficient food. That’s 111 million more than in April of 2020. Prior to the COVID outbreak, we were losing about 3 million children each year, dying as the result of malnutrition. Obviously, that number is increasing.”
  • Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN):“In my previous position, I spent a lot of time in that region as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, and I applaud the Biden Administration for continuing to emphasize the importance of our cooperation in the Quad. The Quad partnerships have come together around the COVID-19 situation and have made significant pledges with respect to providing vaccines—over a billion doses in fact are being pledged to that region…We need to take into account America’s strategic interest as we do this. We have a massive strategic interest in that region.”

How Will the U.S. Engage?

The key question of today’s hearing wasn’t IF the U.S. will engage, but HOW—from the perspective of global vaccine distribution but also more broadly when it comes to supporting emergency response efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus—from deploying oxygen and emergency medical supplies, providing COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics, securing supply chains, helping with pandemic preparedness, and strengthening public health systems to combat future outbreaks.

  • Fortunately, Jeremy Konyndyk, Executive Director of the COVID-19 Task Force, USAID, explained, the United States is not starting from scratch:Meeting this unprecedented challenge is going to take a great deal of American leadership. Fortunately, we have a good track record on that the U.S. has a history of fighting pandemics and outbreaks, whether that’s Ebola, malaria, tuberculosis, Zika, or of course the decades long fight against HIV.”
  • Gayle Smith, Coordinator for Global COVID Response and Health Security, U.S. State Department, said U.S. engagement would be the difference between ending the pandemic in months or years, “The United States needs to be at the forefront of that, frankly, I think that’s the difference between bringing this pandemic to an end in three or four years and bringing it to end in a year 18 months or two years. And that’s a big difference. We know what that means for economic stability, for political stability, and for the lives and livelihoods of millions and indeed the security of the United States and our own citizens.”
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) commented on vaccine diplomacy in a broader strategy and prioritizing vaccine distribution in Central and South America given their proximity to the United States, as well as important trade relationships—“two of our top three trade partners in the world are in the region”—and cross-border flows, as “many folks in the region have family members living here” and might be traveling between the Americas and the United States.
  • Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) asked if the global COVID-19 response merits a whole-of-government assistance strategy, akin to the Marshall Plan. “Is it time for a Marshall Plan when it comes to our response for our allies and those in need across the entire globe? Is it time to take a look at that type of a comprehensive plan? And I just ask both of you…whether or not we find ourselves in a position of leading a global effort that not only would take care of a lot of human suffering and limit human suffering [but] that would also bring us into that leadership position with regards to our allies who need that type of long-term leadership focus going forward.”

Next Steps

Moving forward, U.S. global health, diplomacy and development efforts will continue to play a critical role in bolstering America’s leadership in the global COVID-19 response. To date, Congress has passed over $18 billion in emergency relief funding to address global health, disaster relief, economic and humanitarian assistance, and USAID and State Department operations. But as expressed during the hearing, continued U.S. leadership alongside international efforts are needed to help curtail surges worldwide, ultimately helping countries manage the crises, prevent further devastation, and stem the spread beyond their borders, potentially into the United States.

In her testimony, Gayle Smith shared that the Administration is releasing a plan soon that will detail how and where vaccines will be distributed globally, which Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN), and other senators expressed interest in reviewing and discussing.

In addition to bolstering America’s global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress and the Administration are already thinking about future global health threats. Senators Chris Murphy and Jim Risch expressed the need for future pandemic preparedness, with Senator Murphy even mentioning recent legislation that would introduce a new health security financing mechanism originally referenced in the Administration’s first National Security Memorandum.

While the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be the last, this hearing has further reinforced that the United States will need to continue investing in global health to protect the world now and in the future— investments that are squarely within America’s interests as well.