Biden, Take the Wheel! Lawmakers Say US Must Lead Global Pandemic Response

Senate Foreign Relations Committee members asked the Biden administration for a comprehensive “Marshall Plan” for the planetary scourge that is Covid-19. 

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez speaks about the need for a global response to the pandemic at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — As the coronavirus still rages in many countries around the world, Biden administration officials agreed with Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Wednesday that the United States needs to be at the forefront of creating a large-scale plan of action for combatting the virus. 

“As long as there is Covid anywhere there can be Covid everywhere,” said Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We cannot hermetically seal off the United State of America. Viruses understand no borders, no oceans, no walls — nothing. So it is our own national interest and security as well as being a global citizen to meet this challenge.”

Covax, the global organization created to provide equal access to vaccines worldwide, has shipped 53 million vaccines to 121 nations. In India, however, less than 10% of the population in India has received one vaccine dose at a time when cases there are surging and the virus is mutating into more deadly forms. Of the vaccine doses administered globally so far, meanwhile the entire continent of Africa has administered only 2%. 

“This is a drop in the ocean compared to the approximately 1.2 billion administered around the world, and a far cry from the amount needed to provide herd immunity in those countries,” said Menendez. 

Congress has provided more than 16 billion to contain the pandemic overseas, and 60 million doses of surplus U.S. vaccines have been donated to other countries, including 2.5 million doses of AstraZeneca to Mexico and 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca to Canada. The United States is also the largest donor to Covax, and is pursuing investments to expand vaccine production. 

“This really is nothing like we’ve ever seen: it’s an overlapping health crisis, humanitarian crisis, and development crisis,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, executive director of the White House Covid-19 Task Force. “Any of those on its own would be a historic crisis. The three of them together goes beyond anything that any of us in our careers have seen a precedent for. Fighting that is going to take every resource and every capability that the U.S. government can muster.”

Committee members and administration officials are in agreement, however, that more needs to be done. 

“Is it time for a Marshall Plan?” asked Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, referencing the ambitious program to provide aid to Western Europe after World War II. “Do we find ourselves in a position of leading a global effort?”

Rounds spoke of a large-scale plan not only putting an end to a lot of human suffering, but also positioning the United States as a long-term leader going forward in regards to other future pandemics and health crises. 

“There’s no question that we need a grand plan, and the United States needs to be at the forefront of that,” said Gayle E. Smith, coordinator for Global Covid Response and Health Security. “Frankly, I think that’s the difference between bringing this pandemic to an end in 3 to 4 years and bringing this pandemic to an end in a year, 18 months, two years.”

Smith said that shortening the pandemic would also increase economic and political stability both at home and abroad. 

“It is worth thinking that boldly,” Smith said. “Unless we all come together with a bold, financed vision, prepared to take some risks and do some new things, we’re going to suffer the consequences. This will last longer than need be and we will be less prepared for what we face in the future.”

There is capital out there to buy vaccines, Smith said, between Covax, the African Union, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. But it’s disaggregated and uncoordinated. 

“One of things we are trying to do is make sure that’s a very clear and loud signal that there’s money out there to procure,” Smith said. 

Yet there are complications. 

“We are trying as a world to produce 14 billion extra doses of vaccine a year on a system built to produce four,” said Konyndyk. 

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah called out the officials at the hearing for not yet having a comprehensive written plan for what America’s country-by-country priorities are. For example, who is getting what PPE, who is getting what vaccine, and what additional funding might be necessary to meet our objectives?

Smith said that there is a detailed written framework that the administration is in the process of finalizing, but decisions are still being made. 

“The administration ought be able to put forward a very clear plan: here’s what we are doing, here’s what our objectives are, here’s phase 1, phase 2 phase 3, here’s the countries we are going to first — and the world would know what those things are,” said Romney.

“But at this stage, we’re all here listening, and frankly wondering: why can’t we move as quickly as Russia and China to decide precisely what we want to do, where we want to do it, and communicate that to the world?” he continued. 

Several senators spoke of the need to reform the World Health Organization, which has been questioned for its transparency and ability to address the pandemic

“The United States has to be more clear-eyed about the WHO’s leadership failures and mistakes if we’re ever going to ensure that it will never happen again,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who suggested that the United States raise concerns and demand reforms at the WHO assembly on May 24. 

Administration officials spoke of the G-20 and G-7 summits also being helpful avenues to create a far-reaching plan of action. 

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