Letter from Loyce: Politics in a Pandemic

April 27, 2020

On April 14, President Trump announced that the U.S. would freeze funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). This decision is politics at its most dangerous. As we face the worst public health disaster in the last 100 years, suspending funding to WHO is like cutting the water supply to a firefighter in a burning building.

This community knows better than most the critical role played by WHO. The institution is essential to stopping the spread of COVID-19 and to strengthening our global public health architecture, thereby helping to prevent a crisis of this magnitude from occurring again. There are others, though, that do not have this understanding. So, it falls on us to tell them.

Now is the time to use the power of our collective voice to highlight the role of the WHO in achieving global health progress to date, in navigating the current crisis, and in creating a healthier future. We showed how loud we could be, sending a letter signed by over 1,000 organizations and individuals to President Trump and his cabinet urging him to reverse his decision. As we continue to make that argument, here are some thoughts to bear in mind:

The United States cannot rid the virus from our own country, nor the world, without WHO. While imperfect—as is any institution or government—WHO is the only organization with the technical capacity and global mandate to support the public health response of all countries during this critical time. Without question, WHO has been vital to flattening the curve, slowing the virus’s spread, and ultimately saving lives in the U.S. and around the world. It has mobilized and implemented a Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, doing the essential, rapid work of

  • Coordinating with the global community to collect, analyze, and disseminate public health information;
  • Issuing guidance on how to detect, test, and manage cases;
  • Sharing best practices to protect health workers on the frontlines including training courses produced in six languages that already have reached 848,000 individuals and counting;
  • Leading efforts to procure critical commodities, such as personal protective equipment (PPE)—which have been delivered to 75 countries to date—and lab kits, 1.5 million of which have been provided to more than 125 countries worldwide;
  • Sharing genetic sequencing and accelerating the development of vaccine candidates and therapeutics; and
  • Launching the “Solidarity Trial” to compare the effectiveness of four potential treatments across 100 countries to-date.

WHO is essential to tackling the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). COVID-19 has hobbled Italy, despite it being a high-income country with an arguably advanced public health and medical system.  Imagine, then, what is likely to happen—what is already happening—in resource-constrained settings that struggle to provide even basic health interventions to vulnerable populations.

As the virus continues to spread into countries ill-equipped to combat it, WHO’s role will become even more vital to support fragile health systems. Already, we are hearing stories about challenges of preparing the workforce in these countries, and this will only increase as the virus continues to spread. WHO’s interventions not only will save lives, but also ensure economic stability in these regions as the world recovers from this disease.

The impacts of the pandemic are not all specific to the virus itself; there is a ripple effect threatening global health progress far more broadly. Existing programs have reported bottlenecks in their supply chains, and some programs have been forced to stop altogether. This crisis highlights the need for investments in global health security and strengthening health systems, steps for which our community has been advocating for years. But COVID-19 arrived before our goals were met. Stripping the WHO of critical resources now would turn this wave into a tsunami, reversing global health and development gains across myriad priorities.

While reforms and improvements can and should be made, now is not the time to focus on optimizing WHO operations. Global Health Council (GHC) has long encouraged WHO’s leadership to adopt various reforms to improve operations and outcomes. The Director-General’s response has been positive to those and other recommendations. But the time for assessing what went right or wrong with the institution’s COVID-19 response is not in the midst of a pandemic. There will be an opportunity to review lessons learned after we have put this crisis behind us. To meet the current moment, we must stand with WHO as it charts a course forward.

GHC has been fostering community conversations with US officials on what is happening in the frontline battle against COVID-19 in LMICs. We also have asked Congress to include resources to address global health security and reinforce longstanding investments in U.S. global health in its next wave of pandemic response funding, including robust support for WHO. We must guarantee necessary resources for programs, practitioners, and partnerships across the board if we are to withstand the current crisis and prepare appropriately for future scenarios.

First and foremost, though, we must decouple political theater from this crisis. Diseases don’t respect borders. Global cooperation is essential to defeating COVID-19. Winning the fight against the virus means doing so in every corner of the planet. No organization is better positioned to lead that fight than WHO. Supporting it is critical to keeping people safe around the world and here at home.