The United States, which is currently contending with its own supply shortages, is in no position to send planeloads of medical supplies to others, but it can take action that would have a much greater impact.
The United States should immediately convene the Group of Seven, followed by an expanded online gathering of the Group of 20, to develop a joint strategy addressing the challenges now faced by governments and individuals in almost every country on Earth. Saudi Arabia has already taken the lead on a virtual G-20 gathering; the United State should ensure it produces workable results. Together, these nations should create international teams with the highest levels of expertise to deal with the fast-growing emergencies on multiple fronts.
The United States has acted before. The American response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 helped to contain the crisis there. President George W. Bush’s campaign against HIV/AIDS continues to save millions of lives.
The United States should also lead a coordinated international response to prevent a global economic collapse, much as Washington did during the 2008 financial crisis. G-7 leaders should work together to synchronize monetary and fiscal stimulus packages to inject the global economy with an intravenous solution that might keep it from crashing.
The prospects are so daunting that anything else would be irresponsible. The U.S. unemployment rate could skyrocket to 30 percent, according to James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That’s higher than during the Great Depression. Other countries face similarly daunting economic prospects.
A nationalist response to the pandemic may be understandable, but it is counterproductive. Nationalist, unilateral policies were among the reasons the Great Depression was as catastrophic as it was. We need to be aware of the mistakes that made the 1929 crisis lead to the global calamity of the 1930s.
The global response team would tackle the most immediate need: the shortage of ventilators, as well as the lack of masks and other protective equipment. For perplexing reasons, President Trump has refused to put into action his powers under the Defense Production Act to boost supply. That’s still urgently needed. But a parallel response could mobilize factories in other countries to quickly ramp up production commensurate with the coming worldwide need.
Beyond medical supplies, international efforts should monitor and prevent potential supply chain squeezes for other vital items. Severe disruptions across the worldwide economy could produce shocks in the most unexpected places. We need industrial triage and surveillance to identify shortages before they develop. After all, this is still a highly globalized economy.
The United States can also assist in setting up an international plan to help developing countries prepare for the next stages of the crisis. If wealthy countries’ health-care systems have struggled to keep up with demand, poorer nations could face an even greater calamity. Helping develop a plan to quickly scale up facilities is not just a matter of humanitarian decency, it’s also one of self-preservation. The more the virus spreads anywhere, the more everyone is at risk everywhere.
We must also work on ways to improve joint efforts to help scientists develop a vaccine, treatments and antibody tests. As the world’s scientific leader, the United States could lead an effort to network experts around the globe, helping them to share information and shortening the amount of time it will take to find solutions. And considering the astonishing worldwide spread of false information about the virus, it would also be useful to establish a unified, credible, authoritative clearinghouse of up-to-date public health information.
This is a time for the United States to exhibit decisive leadership that produces more coordination. So far, Trump has been doing precisely the opposite. He has repeatedly attacked China. He blindsided allies with a travel ban. In his first televised address on the pandemic, he sneered at the Europeans, boasting that the United States had “dramatically fewer cases” than European countries that had not taken the precautions he boasted of taking. That was insulting, unnecessary and misleading. Now the United States is on track to have the world’s highest number of cases in just a few days and possibly far more than any other nation soon after. (It’s worth recalling how Trump fulminated against the U.S. effort to contain Ebola, once calling President Barack Obama “stupid” for sending U.S. troops to Africa to help in the effort.)
Trump was elected as an unabashed nationalist, but his America First views are preventing the United Stated from bringing the world together to maximize the effectiveness of the response and minimize the duration of this ordeal for everyone, including Americans.
We know Trump. It would be foolish to expect that he will reverse course. Still, bringing the world together to battle this pandemic is the urgent, moral, practical and strategically smart thing to do.