Letter from Loyce: The 2020 Global Health Marathon: A Long, but Winnable Race

September 28, 2020

Back in the day, I was a competitive runner. Throughout 2020, I’ve drawn on that experience quite a bit, especially the mindset and skills that helped me get through distance races. Despite our overwhelming wish for the COVID-19 crisis to end quickly, the truth is this is not a sprint; we are pacing ourselves for a marathon. And while this marks the final quarter of our calendar year, it’s likely just the midpoint in terms of getting this pandemic under control. As many runners know, halfway through a marathon can be the hardest part—you’re exhausted and still have a ways to go.

Your mind begins to wander and question your life choices. You start to feel your legs get heavy as well as any aches and pains that begged for TLC throughout your training. And you definitely should have had more (or less?) to eat that morning. Well, here’s the good news: Together, the global health community has already run quite a distance. Just look at the mileposts we’ve hit this year, and during a pandemic! I’m hoping we all put the graphic above somewhere prominent as a visual reminder to power us along while we survey the route.

Where We are Now

This week wraps up the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Prior to COVID-19, the convening was not intended to focus on global health. Always on the agenda, however, was a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations (UN), and an opportunity for members to reconfirm their commitment to multilateralism.

The UN emerged out of the crisis of World War II. It provided an opportunity for world leaders to come together in solidarity around global action. On this anniversary, we are in the midst of another crisis and UN institutions like World Health Organization (WHO) are more critical than ever. As Secretary-General Guterres said, “Those who built the UN 75 years ago had lived through a pandemic, a global depression, genocide, and world war. They knew the cost of discord and the value of unity. The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis unlike any we have ever seen. Today, we face our own 1945 moment.”

The pandemic has not abated and likely will not for some time. Cases are resurging in Europe and Asia, and it’s reasonable to assume the Americas will follow suit. Just as was true at the start of this race, we need international cooperation to reach the finish line.

While this is a time for countries to come together to ensure we sustain momentum in fighting the pandemic, the U.S. has indicated it won’t participate in a WHO co-led initiative for equitable distribution of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Regardless, our hope is that world leaders recognize and work toward universal access to any lifesaving innovations. As we know, no one is safe until all of us are safe.

What’s Coming Up Next

In November, we will pick up speed. Up first is the U.S. election, which will inevitably have enormous repercussions for our community. Regardless of the outcome, GHC is prepared to work with the next administration to continue progress toward global health goals. 

At the World Health Assembly in mid-November, countries will reconvene to pick up where they left off in May, addressing outstanding issues around our collective pandemic response and tackling other health priorities languishing in COVID-19’s wake. GHC’s network is tracking these deliberations, pushing for a community voice in recommendations and resolutions. 

On November 19 and 20, we are hosting a virtual advocacy summit. This candid forum will explore the full spectrum of “Pandemics, Politics, and Privilege” in global health today. You’ll definitely want to be part of those conversations. Just ask those who have joined in years past!

2020 has reinforced something we knew already: Global health is fractured. COVID-19 has crippled countless health systems and deepened a rift that allows vulnerable people to slip through the cracks. But this is not the first evidence of broad shortcomings. A new approach to supporting global health was needed well before the pandemic struck.

The current system should be transformed. Moving forward, resilient health systems and universal access to high-quality primary care must be the overarching objectives that drive U.S. global health assistance, as all countries begin to reassess their strengths and weaknesses once the current emergency has run its course. To that end, GHC and its members have developed a new vision  for U.S. global health to guide this transformation.

As we head into the second half of our global health marathon, we are focused on advancing this agenda. We are doubling down on what has gotten us this far: advocating for robust U.S. funding for global health (including emergency resources for COVID-19), recommitting to international cooperation through effective multilateral institutions (including WHO), and working to decolonize global health in order to achieve racial justice and equity.

If I’ve learned anything as a runner, it’s this: There’s a point when the endorphins kick in. Somehow, somewhere all the mileage and focus pays off. Your legs lighten, your pace quickens—even if only a little—and you can feel the end drawing near. Let that promise of light and lift be your motivation as we look down the road ahead in this last stretch. And keep running.