'A scattered mess': Global coronavirus response lacks leadership, experts say

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Residents of Alexandra township queue to be screened and tested for COVID-19 in South Africa. Photo by: Reuters

WASHINGTON — While the COVID-19 pandemic is a global phenomenon, it has yet to be met with a truly global response, according to leading U.S. health and development advocates.

The inward focus shown by the U.S. and other governments might not be surprising, given that even wealthy nations have been overwhelmed by the coronavirus and its economic fallout. But this risks allowing the virus to gain traction in other parts of the world, only to return and cause additional waves of infection later on, they warned.

Gayle Smith: 'Deficit of global leadership' plagues COVID-19 response

ONE Campaign president and CEO says she has never seen such a lack of leadership in a global crisis — but thinks there is still potential for progress.

“We need to move now, because now is the pivotal moment. We’re flying blind into our future,” said Mark Dybul, co-director at the Center for Global Health Practice and Impact at Georgetown University Medical Center, speaking at a Devex online event Wednesday.

The concern is that, if the COVID-19 epicenter moves from Europe and the U.S. to countries in Africa and other parts of the global south, the virus could find an environment that would foster mutation. This could lead to a more virulent strain, which might then circulate back through countries that have already experienced a first wave of infections, Dybul said.

“It’s very difficult for the international system to respond when we’re still all in our corners, and we’re in our corners because no one’s leading.”

— Mark Dybul, Center for Global Health Practice and Impact co-director, Georgetown University Medical Center

For that reason, the U.S. and other countries should see it in their immediate national interests to recognize the global nature of the pandemic and attempt to learn as much as possible about how the virus is interacting with the demographics of low- and middle-income countries while they still have an opportunity to get ahead of it, he added.

“We’ve had a massive indication of the impossibility of isolation in our world,” said Michael Gerson, columnist for The Washington Post and fellow at the ONE Campaign.

“Unless we’re prepared, unless we take this seriously, I think it’s falling down on a security need for the country,” he added.

Gerson noted that a “narrow national interest” argument might have to be what pushes the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump toward mounting a global response, since it lacks the “ideological tools” to do so otherwise.

But the experts agreed that global leaders have so far failed to coalesce around a common understanding that the pandemic cannot be dealt with on a country-by-country basis.

Devex's Raj Kumar, ONE Campaign’s CEO Gayle Smith, global health expert Mark Dybul, and ONE fellow Michael Gerson in an online conversation on COVID-19 and global health security. Via YouTube.

“What’s missing is the aggressive utilization of the United Nations, for example,” said Gayle Smith, CEO at the ONE Campaign.

“One would have thought the U.N. Security Council would have met by now. One would have thought that there would be emergency summits going on of world leaders. One would have thought that the robust response — both in response to the health crisis, but the attendant humanitarian and economic response — would have been knitted together by now,” added Smith, who led the U.S. Agency for International Development during the presidency of Barack Obama.

All three agreed that a lack of global leadership is one reason the world has yet to move beyond a piecemeal approach to dealing with the pandemic.

“It’s very difficult for the international system to respond when we’re still all in our corners, and we’re in our corners because no one’s leading,” Dybul said.

Dybul, who previously led the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, has joined other leaders in calling for the creation of a global task force to confront COVID-19 — which could then be linked up with regional, national, and subnational task forces to coordinate an integrated response plan.

“This is not that hard, but we’re not thinking about it. We’re not acting on it. So it’s really just putting the pieces together — including the economic, the food security, and the health pieces — because right now it’s just a scattered mess,” he said.

Advocates hope that the U.S. Congress will back a plan to include $12 billion for the global response to the pandemic in its next supplemental spending bill.

“What you need is high-level sponsorship within the administration,” said Gerson, who served as a speechwriter and senior policy adviser for President George W. Bush.

The U.S. government has an “A-team” of global health leaders — including Deborah Birx, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator and White House coronavirus task force coordinator — but they are currently consumed by the domestic crisis, Gerson said.

“Tell the president he can get credit for it. ... I think there’s something to work with there, but it’s going to take someone who carries this idea to the decision-making levels of the administration,” he added.

Update, April 30, 2020: This article has been updated to remove incorrect numbers related to the next supplemental spending bill.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.