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Why the US Return to the WHO Matters

The return of the US to the World Health Organization is vital in tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
World Health Organization, WHO, US return to the WHO, COVID-19 pandemic, SARS-CoV2, coronavirus news, Joe Biden news, Biden administration, Hamad bin Khalifa University, Andreas Rechkemmer

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March 18, 2021 12:48 EDT

In compliance with major statements made repeatedly during his electoral campaign, US President Joe Biden, on his first day in office on January 20, signed two important executive orders — among 15 others, a record number — signaling the United States’ return to the international arena, to global cooperation and multilateralism. One of these orders was for the United States to rejoin the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and the other was to reestablish the country’s full membership and support to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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Both acts were hugely symbolic, especially since they occurred within hours of Biden’s inauguration, as they set a fundamentally new tone in US foreign policy and sent a strong signal to the world, paraphrased as: We are back, count on us. But other than being symbolic, these acts constitute a material and substantial backing of global efforts to address two of the 21st century’s most severe world crises — the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change — under the aegis of the United Nations.

When the Trump administration announced in July 2020, in the middle of the most devastating pandemic in at least a century, that the US would withdraw from the WHO — having already frozen payments of mandatory membership dues and thereby violating international law months earlier — that move was widely regarded as not only hugely counterproductive but as outright insane.

The World Needs the US as Well

Clearly, the country hit hardest by the pandemic — both in terms of total infections and deaths — is better off as a member of the very global community that ensures the fast sharing of research, data and best practices, coordinates responses, and comes together to devise evidence-based solutions to the world’s most pressing public health issues, be it malaria, tuberculosis, HIV or COVID-19. But the international community needs the US as well.

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In fact, the US has been the single most important independent variable in international relations and global affairs since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the Declaration of the United Nations on January 1, 1942. Hence, a WHO without the active participation and support of the US government is unthinkable. This engagement extends well beyond funding. Since its inception in 1948, the US has been the single largest contributor to the WHO — which budgeted $4.84 billion for the biennium 2020-21, not including COVID-19-related expenses — with a steady share of 22% of the organization’s assessed core budget and significant additional voluntary contributions made every single year.

Yet the active support of medical research data, analysis, know-how, logistics, supplies and people power to the WHO’s multifold programs and emergency operations by the US, such as during the West African Ebola crisis of 2013-15, is priceless and virtually irreplaceable. Indeed, a great sense of relief was voiced in unison by scientists, senior government officials and UN leaders alike when the Biden administration applied common sense and restored the United States’ bond with the WHO on the day of its inception. This step will have an immediately relevant and measurable impact on the global response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

With the unfreezing of previously withheld payments and the allocation of additional, fresh sums of money targeted at global health emergency relief efforts, research and development, and the provision of supplies and teams, the global fight against COVID-19 will experience an important boost. This will be particularly important in the context of WHO’s COVAX initiative, which is a historic, unprecedented fundraising effort to make effective and safe vaccines available to all countries, especially developing ones. Moreover, COVAX entails a proprietary vaccine development program, including the building of manufacturing capabilities, and provides technical and logistical support to countries in need.

COVAX Initiative

The new US administration has quickly become COVAX’s largest funder and pledged to donate surplus vaccine stocks in addition to its financial contributions. Also, efforts to assist developing countries by deploying on-the-ground technical assistance where needed are underway.

However, COVAX still has a long way to go to meet its goal of buying supply so that 2 billion doses can be fairly and equitably distributed by the end of 2021. To date, financial support by OECD countries to the facility has been lukewarm at best, although the US and Germany stand out. The apparent lack of solidarity and tangible support by wealthy nations is disappointing and recently prompted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to call global vaccine distribution “wildly uneven and unfair,” describing the goal of providing vaccines to all as “the biggest moral test before the global community.”

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic with its rapidly-emerging mutations and variants, quick, unequivocal and substantial support — both financial and technical — to developing countries and those behind in getting access to effective vaccines is not only a moral obligation for developed countries, but also a mere matter of rationality and self-interest.

As long as over 100 countries globally have not even received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, even the most ambitious and aggressive vaccine rollout campaigns in wealthy countries may be in vain as new variants of SARS-CoV-2 can emerge and cause new viral strains at any time. The Biden administration, along with other governments, is well advised to massively support multilateral solutions and collective action. It is the only reasonable, promising approach to tackling the world’s biggest crises in the 21st century.

*[This article was submitted on behalf of the author by the Hamad bin Khalifa University Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the university’s official stance.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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