June 18, 2020

Chairman Risch Opening Statement at Hearing on COVID-19 and U.S. International Pandemic Preparedness, Prevention, and Response

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today convened a full committee hearing on COVID-19 and U.S. international pandemic preparedness, prevention, and response, with witness testimony from Mr. James Richardson, director of foreign assistance at the U.S. Department of State, Mr. Chris Milligan, counselor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Mr. Garrett Grigsby, director of global affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Chairman Risch gave the following opening statement:

“Today we’re going to discuss the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the future of pandemic preparedness, prevention, and response.

“The hearing will focus on S.3829 which Senator Murphy and I have introduced – the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act. It’s written on paper, not on stone, which we’ll talk about a little bit in the future.

“This is an important endeavor that this committee is going to take up. Indeed, probably one of the weightiest matters that we’ll deal with as we attempt to create a new shield to prevent a COVID virus-type attack from happening again.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic has reaffirmed what we’ve long known: infectious diseases, particularly those of viral nature, do not respect borders. A threat anywhere is a threat everywhere.

“We have been right to focus on our domestic response to this pandemic. But we ignore the spread overseas at our own peril.

“It is essential that we respond now: to help our partners who are not yet experiencing significant spread to get testing, tracing, and quarantine procedures in place; and to help our partners who already are under siege avert worst-case scenarios. 

“We need to also focus on protecting access to food, livelihoods, water, sanitation, and hygiene. Protecting existing investments in immunizations, maternal and child health, and other infectious diseases are important at this time also.

“And we need to work with partner countries and organizations to ensure that our aid reaches those who need it most, without aiding and abetting corruption, human rights violations, and democratic backsliding, which we all know frequently happens in the world when we start focusing on something else. 

“At the same time, we need to figure out a way to get ahead of the next global pandemic. Indeed, that is what the focus of this hearing is going to be on.

“Again, the vehicle that we’re talking about, S.3829, is for discussion purposes and we look for every possible improvement to that bill that we can make.

“This hearing is one of a number that I’m going to undertake as we construct S.3829 to go forward. The purpose of it is twofold. As I said, we should construct a shield that is better than the shield that we have.

“I’ve repeatedly said what we need is a fire station, a fire department, ready and able to put out a fire before it burns the entire world. Over the years, we have come to expect that the World Health Organization (WHO) would play a role.

“The WHO has done great work in many respects. It does play a key role as the guardian of the International Health Regulations and as the clearinghouse of global health data and best practices. And it has done remarkable work in combatting polio and eradicating smallpox. But its response to fast-moving emergencies, such as Ebola and COVID-19, has exposed significant weaknesses that the WHO has.

“But we are not here to demean, criticize, or condemn the WHO. Rather, what we’re here to do is to have a fair analysis of what the response was and how their structure is constructed that has caused the weaknesses we have.

“Dr. Tedros and his management team were very kind to spend some time with me early on, and they explained to me what their objectives were and how they were attempting to do it. They made some very fair points, and it truly is obvious that they did things that could’ve been done differently and they will be the very first to admit that.

“In addition to reforming the WHO – and truly there is some reforming that’s needed, and it should be done, as I said, without demeaning, criticizing or condemning, but rather in the kindest way possible to make it work better – we need an international financing mechanism that will re-energize action under the Global Health Security Agenda, so we can help countries with high commitment but low capacity to improve their pandemic preparedness and response.   

“And we need a long-term fix to the coordination problems that have long plagued U.S. country teams operating overseas. We need a single accountable entity, housed at the Department of State, to lead diplomatic efforts and coordinate the efforts of the agencies implementing global health security assistance overseas.

“This accountable entity would not replace the central role of the NSC in coordinating global health security policy across the whole-of-government here in Washington. Alternatively, it would ensure the effectiveness of global health security programs at the mission-level.

“We put these ideas forward in this bipartisan bill, the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act, and have invited all those who wish to participate to do so. This has to be a bipartisan effort.

“It is not too late to get back on track and to restore the long-standing tradition of bipartisanship that has characterized every successful U.S. global health program of the past 20 years. 

“It is not too late to focus our efforts on addressing the current COVID-19 pandemic overseas in a manner that saves lives and protects the United States from future waves of infection.

“Let there be no mistake about it, this bill is designed to look at the future. There is no doubt this is going to happen again. We’ve been told that the bat population, particularly in the Wuhan area in China, contains about 2,000 viruses. This of course, the pandemic, was caused by one of these viruses, jumping from one species to another, from a bat to a human being.

“What happened after that has been greatly debated, but we know what the result was, and we know that the result was not good. We know there were failures along the line, and we know we could do better.

“There’s no other group more qualified than this committee, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to undertake this proposition. This is something that we owe America, we owe the world, and we can do this.

“I’m committed to do that. And I would hope that every member on the committee will focus on this as one of the most important things that we do. It will be a legacy that will be incredibly important for future generations, and we know that the world cannot withstand much more of what we’ve seen from the COVID-19 infection that went through the world.

“With that, I hope that we as a committee do what we try to do. That is focus with civility, kindness, understanding and tolerance as we hear from everyone. We’re going to have a lot of different ideas – there’s going to be a lot of ideas that people have strong feelings on.

“I hope people will do their best to listen carefully to what others have to say, and listen to defenses that people make to what has happened. But more importantly, listen carefully to what people tell us they’ve learned that will help us in the future.

“In a bipartisan fashion that’s done with kindness and civility, I have every confidence that we can develop a bill that can pass this Congress, be signed by the president, become law, and really be a tremendous benefit to our fellow human beings as we go forward.

“With that, I’ll turn it over to Senator Menendez.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. The witness testimonies are available on foreign.senate.gov.

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