As Washington and the United States emerge from quarantine, they need to rebuild more than just their economies.
They must also redouble leadership in global health and development. As devastating as the pandemic has been in developed countries, it’s likely to cause longer-lasting harm in emerging countries with weaker health systems, famine looming and no way to bail themselves out.
Foreign aid must continue in parallel with spending to revive the U.S. economy and minimize suffering in America.
We have the wealth and bandwidth to do both, and our recovery and long-term success depend on the rest of the world recovering and resuming its progress as well.
Last week, I discussed these issues with Mark Suzman, the new CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, during a Times editorial board meeting.
Suzman said it’s important to remember that despite recent spats with the World Health Organization, the U.S. is very generous and “the world’s largest funder of global health right now, by far.”
“We certainly see a need for continued global leadership from the U.S. even as they reserve, rightly, a focus on national needs,” he said.
Our conversation provided a glimpse into the realm where governments, health organizations and philanthropists working to improve global health are applying their expertise and resources to battle the pandemic.
They are conspiring, openly, to save lives, speed the response and minimize harm. This involves organizations and government bodies that were already collaborating to fight scourges like polio, HIV and malaria by accelerating and innovating treatments, prevention and vaccines.
Bill and Melinda Gates recently committed to give $25 billion over the next four years, sustaining a network of partner nonprofits regionally and globally, Suzman said.
Now they’re increasing that spending and pivoting to battle COVID-19. Among other things, the foundation is trying to speed development of diagnostic tools, response systems, treatments and vaccines.
Help coordinating and improving the global response is especially welcome given the lack of strong U.S. leadership and fraying of alliances, after years of shortsighted nationalism.
If you have a big problem, you want help from experts. That goes for a plumbing failure, a fire or a cancer diagnosis. The world has a big problem, and it’s a blessing that experts in battling epidemics and improving global health are helping.
The foundation also can make audacious bets, like the billions Bill Gates committed to scale up vaccine-manufacturing capacity.
“Most vaccines are manufactured in hundreds of millions globally,” Suzman said. “We’re going to need to vaccinate at least 7 billion people.”
Trickier will be related policy discussions. Protocols for distributing the vaccines need to be developed as factories gear up, Suzman said. After front-line health workers and the most vulnerable are vaccinated, who is next in line?
Suzman, a native of South Africa, said Africa has seen great progress over the last 20 years with child mortality reduced by half and gains in health care, education and poverty reduction.
“There’s no question that is now significantly at risk,” he said.
One way to help is to pause debt obligations of African nations, Suzman said. That’s already starting with organizations like the World Bank, whose largest shareholder is the United States.
Africa is also a place where China and the U.S. worked cooperatively to provide early support for disease control. Further such cooperation might be a path forward for the rivals, Suzman suggested, since they “have significant common interests in putting in place a new, stronger global public-health infrastructure.”
It’s natural to be suspicious of billionaires, especially when they’re cozy with government and elite organizations. Scrutiny is needed, and some are indeed corrupt.
But recent conspiracy mongering about Gates appears mostly political. His early warnings of a pandemic and recent action contrast with the bobbled federal response, while highlighting that American leadership is continuing regardless.
Another way to look at the foundation’s response: It’s just another example of people in Seattle doing whatever they can to keep their family safe and help prevent others from getting sick.
Suzman said King County and Washington state have been “close to models of what should be done locally and nationally.”
“It’s not as if anybody has a secret solution in their back pocket saying ‘here’s the way to do it,’ ” he said. “We’re all navigating fully uncharted territory.”
Most of us are helping, by simply staying home, to slow the disease spread and reduce the impact on our health-care system. Willing or not, it’s a tremendous gift: Some will never recover from the financial cost of this effort to save lives of people they’ll never meet.
I guess that makes us like Warren Buffett — we’re all minority investors now in the Gates Foundation mission to eradicate vexing disease, increase global health and improve the lives of billions.