U.S. Leadership is Especially Needed to Help Vulnerable Countries

by Hardin Lang and Richard Ponzio

Almost a year ago, on January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 an international public health emergency. But 10 months would pass before the United Nations convened world leaders to address the pandemic. When they finally did in December, the results were disappointing. No doubt, a big part of the problem was President Donald Trump’s very public abdication of American leadership of the multilateral system. President Joe Biden has promised to change that. Breathing new life into the global response to the pandemic should be at the top of that agenda. The world’s most vulnerable populations depend on it.
A photo taken in the late hours of August 17, 2020 shows a photo exhibition outside of the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

Last month’s U.N. World Leaders Summit on the coronavirus brought together leaders from over 140 countries. Trump was noticeably absent. But the organizers had no clear plan for the meeting, which failed to mobilize financial support or even issue a short joint communique. November’s G20 Summit did not fare much better, after the Trump administration balked at a French proposal to grant the poorest debtor nations billions of dollars of relief in the form of IMF Special Drawing Rights (which are used to supplement countries’ official reserves in times of crisis).

These summits missed the opportunity to rally political support for a unified global strategy – one that gives equal attention to emergency needs and medium-term socioeconomic recovery. The failures are especially tragic for the millions of people caught in or fleeing conflict or disasters. Over 4.6 million cases of COVID-19 have been logged in crisis zones or refugee-hosting countries, where the virus has killed over 100,000 people. Refugees and other vulnerable populations survive in often-crowded environments without access to basic services and meaningful healthcare. Such conditions make virus control extremely challenging.

However, the indirect effects of the pandemic have proven far more devastating for the world’s disaffected.  Border closures and travel restrictions have limited access to refuge and disrupted humanitarian supply chains. COVID-19 restrictions have proven particularly harmful for women and girls, who have endured a loss of essential healthcare as well as a global spike in gender-based violence. Equally troublesome is the number of people facing acute food insecurity – or at risk of becoming so – having doubled over the course of 2020, according to the UN, rising to 271 million by the end of the year.

Furthermore, market closures and economic shutdowns have destroyed commerce and livelihoods across the globe, from the United States to South Africa. Those working in the informal sector have been among the hardest hit. The World Bank predicts that, depending on the severity of the economic contraction, as many as 150 million people may be pushed into extreme poverty in 2021. To be sure, the sudden increase in those requiring humanitarian and other types of international assistance is not due solely to COVID-19.  Climate change and conflict in global hotspots like Yemen are helping to drive the trendline. Yet the pandemic remains the key variable in a global downward spiral.

The U.N. system and other relief agencies have struggled mightily to meet humanitarian needs in the midst of the pandemic. The United States has funded many of these efforts, but the Trump administration stiff-armed key multilateral efforts to mitigate the pandemic. Trump walked away from the WHO and from a U.N.-backed initiative to accelerate COVID testing, treatments, and vaccine development (the Access to COVID-19 Tools or ACT Accelerator). That effort is critical to ensuring that those in poor or fragile states do not get left behind. Moreover, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that the broader relief and recovery effort is facing a finance gap of $28 billion that is urgently needed in the next few months.

A global recovery strategy for immediate and medium-term action

The international community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been delayed, fragmented, and under-resourced, exacerbated lately by legitimate fears of vaccine nationalism. Addressing these concerns in a manner that helps to also ensure the sustainability of U.S. domestic “rescue and recovery” efforts, the Biden-Harris administration will need to mobilize the multilateral system through a series of near and medium-term actions. This could, in effect, serve as a mutually reinforcing global component of Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan and Build Back Better Recovery Plan,” announced on January 14, which will focus on immediate relief priorities for American citizens and transition, over time, to facilitating longer-term U.S. economic growth while confronting the climate crisis.

The good news is that the new administration is off to an impressive start. Yesterday, President Biden issued a national security directive ordering his team to develop a plan to strengthen international efforts to combat the virus. This plan should prioritize support for those on the front line of the global humanitarian response and mobilize other donors through the G20 and U.N. to do the same. It must also target both the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic. In addition, the Biden administration should work with the World Bank and other donors to ensure that countries receiving COVID-financing are including highly vulnerable groups like refugees in their social safety nets and other emergency responses.

The new directive also commits the United States to support the procurement and distribution of a “people’s vaccine” through the ACT Accelerator and its vaccine pillar – COVAX. This must happen swiftly. The head of the WHO has warned that the world is “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” because richer nations are cornering the market on vaccine supplies. The Biden administration will need to tackle this challenge head-on if COVAX is to make good on its promise to distribute 1.3 billion vaccine doses to poorer counties by the end of the year. It should also bolster COVAX’s “humanitarian buffer,” which will help give populations in the worst crisis zones access to a vaccine.

Over the medium-term (2-3 years), the Biden-Harris administration should work with international partners to confront the financing for development gap in the least developed countries, for instance by employing capital injections from the World Bank’s International Development Association replenishment, the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, and the U.N.’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, especially in countries most affected by the pandemic. It should further work through global and regional institutions to build back better and greener too, by supporting environmentally sound national COVID-19 recovery plans and incentivizing the private sector to invest more in renewable energy and green infrastructure projects in rich and poor countries alike. Finally, the United States should work with international and local, public-private partnerships to offer livelihood opportunities to young people (as nearly 60 percent of the population of least developed countries is under the age of 25), including through employment and educational opportunities and social outlets that reinforce civic responsibility. These and related ideas are elaborated upon in the recent Stimson Center and Doha Forum co-authored report Coping with New and Old Crises: Global and Regional Cooperation in an Age of Epidemic Uncertainty.

In early 2021, as Italy assumes the presidency of the G20, the Biden-Harris administration could work closely with the Italian government and other G20 partners to commit to a global green recovery strategy, which outlines actionable and resourced immediate humanitarian and medium-term recovery priorities for governments, international organizations, civil society, and the business community. Fortunately, Italy and the European Commission are convening, in May 2021, an extraordinary G20 Health Summit in Rome, which could back the new plan and inject new resources and other kinds of support to ground-level actors.

Learning from the G20 response to the 2008-9 global financial crisis, Biden could convene a special “G20+” leaders session, in late September 2021 in New York, to review the global recovery strategy’s implementation, hold governments accountable, and refine various transnational recovery initiatives underway. The G20 Summits in London (April 2009) and Pittsburgh (September 2009), at the start of the Obama-Biden administration, coordinated national economic stimulus and relief plans for the poorest countries, creating the conditions for a slow yet steady global rebound. To engage the other 174 U.N. Member States (not directly represented in the G20) in this effort, the global recovery strategy should be further deliberated upon and enhanced during the G20+ session at the annual U.N. General Assembly High-Level Week. Such actions offer the best chance to save lives, rebuild economies, double down on climate action, and make up for the lost time largely squandered this past year by the United States and the international community.

About the Authors:

Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.

Richard Ponzio is Director of the Just Security 2020 Program and a Senior Fellow at Stimson.