Last Monday, President Trump threatened to permanently halt funding to the World Health Organization if the organization did not address its “repeated missteps” in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic within 30 days. One day later, the organization’s other member nations rallied to support the WHO. The United States was left alone in its dissent. By Friday, the president made good on his threat and announced that he would withdraw the United States, without even allowing a response from the WHO.
The WHO is not above reproach and has not been a perfect manager of the coronavirus crisis. But now is not the time for the United States to isolate itself from the rest of the medical world. Because even as new cases and deaths have begun trending downward in the United States, rates are starting to spike in other countries—especially for our neighbors to the south.
Of the top eight countries where rates of new COVID cases are increasing the fastest, three—Brazil, Peru, and Chile—are in South America. If we hope to contain the pandemic, both globally and at home, we cannot do so without helping and coordinating with these nations. President Trump has claimed the United States is the “world leader” in coronavirus response; but for this to be true, we must lead international containment efforts, rather than disengage from them.
The novel coronavirus arrived late to South America. The continent’s first case wasn’t until February 26, at which point the United States already had over 80,000 cases and 4,000 deaths. However, South America is rapidly becoming the new epicenter of the pandemic.
Brazil currently has 526,447 diagnosed cases, second only to the United States. Peru isn’t far behind. Even after two months of strict lockdown, over 4,500 new cases are being recorded per day, catapulting Peru to the second-highest number of total cases in South America. Other South American countries are also seeing upticks: Chile is at 105,158 cases, up from 17,008 at the beginning of May.
Cases in South America are now doubling every two weeks, and experts believe that the worst of the pandemic in these countries is yet to come. This has the potential to be disastrous for the region, in which 10.2 percent of the population already lives in extreme poverty and as many as 35 million more could become impoverished as a result of the pandemic. President Sebastián Piñera of Chile has advised that the next few weeks will bring “the most difficult times and the greatest health challenges in decades.”
The pandemic is already taking its toll on the region. In recent weeks, the business capital of Ecuador, Quayaquil, had so many deaths that hospitals became overwhelmed and bodies were left to pile on the street.
The outbreak there is thought to have been seeded by Ecuadorians who visited Spain. This illustrates a critical factor in the rapid international spread of COVID: However much nationalists might dislike it, people travel, and many people have family and economic ties worldwide. This is especially true in America. Despite an increasing isolationism in our foreign policy, American prosperity and wellbeing is dependent on what happens abroad. Therefore, the fate of our southern neighbors will ultimately have an effect on the United States.
President Trump has largely ignored the virus’s progress in South America. Since February, the Trump administration has run 238 ICE deportation flights to South American countries, exporting at least two dozen COVID-positive cases to Colombia, as well as additional infected migrants to Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti. In late April, Trump announced that he would send ventilators only to South American countries that he perceived to be more cooperative on immigration. On May 1, the State Department argued that America’s minuscule $73 million in aid to the entire region was emblematic of Trump “continuing to lead the response to COVID-19.”
There might be arguments for cutting funding for and America’s involvement in the WHO at some later date. Doing so in the middle of a crisis can only ultimately hurt—both the rest of the world and America.
In his letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, President Trump lodged various complaints against China and the WHO itself. Yet it will be countries who need aid the most, such as Brazil and Peru, that will be most hurt if the United States withdraws its support. The WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund has already shipped personal protective equipment to 135 countries and supplied 1.5 million diagnostic kits, with 30 million more on the way. The organization is also coordinating over 100 countries to work together to find effective vaccines and treatments.
These responses have not been flawless, but at the present moment they are essential to countries whose health systems may not be strong enough to address the pandemic alone.
Without external assistance, the fallout from COVID-19 will not be limited to South America. The world is too interconnected. Just two weeks ago, for instance, two Southern California hospitals were forced to stop admitting new coronavirus patients after admitting nearly 100 U.S. citizens who live across the border in Mexico but were unable to get care from the overwhelmed hospitals there.
President Trump’s actions are also incongruous with public sentiment. A recent poll of U.S. voters found that 72 percent support the allocation of anywhere from $10 billion to $15 billion for international assistance in the next emergency relief package, with 96 percent saying they think it is important for the United States to work with other countries to fight diseases that could spread globally. Voters also understand that America may be vulnerable to second waves if we do not contain outbreaks abroad. Over three-quarters of voters say that as long as COVID-19 is spreading anywhere in the world, Americans will not be safe from new outbreaks. They’re correct.
The daily number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States may be dropping, but we cannot shut our doors and hope that through isolation we will make it through to the other side. That is not a realistic position. The coronavirus is a global pandemic; it requires a global response.
When we send medical equipment and PPE, it should be done considering nothing other than the country’s medical needs, because infections anywhere can lead to infections here. If we have to limit travel from countries, it should be from countries with high case rates, not just those who have fallen into political disfavor. And if we are predicting spillover cases from other countries, and a potential second wave, we should continue funding the WHO, at least for the duration of the crisis. Cutting off U.S. funding in the middle of the pandemic will not lead to the necessary reforms—and may even harm containment efforts in countries that need aid.
Now is not the time for a rapid retreat; the United States should re-engage with the world and live up to its promise as a leader during this pandemic. Lives—and our prosperity—hang in the balance.