March 11, 2021

OPINION: A Grim Anniversary, a Promising Path Forward

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

More than 117 million people around the globe have been infected and 2.6 million people have died since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a pandemic one year ago this week.

Over the course of a year, economies were upended, schools and offices shuttered, and livelihoods shattered. Catastrophic failures at all levels accelerated the international spread of COVID-19. Early warning systems failed. Rapid response mechanisms failed. Global supply chains failed.

Unless we do something, this will happen again.

These early failures were in no small part caused by the Chinese government’s prioritization of its own perceived legitimacy and reputation over its moral obligation to share life-saving information with the international community.

China’s leaders deliberately withheld or delayed release of vital global health data, silenced doctors and journalists, bought up personal protective equipment across Asia, delayed the deployment of WHO experts, and spread damaging disinformation. The WHO took the Chinese government’s false reporting at face value, praised the CCP’s alleged commitment to transparency, and struggled to gain access to China. The WHO failed, and continues to fail, to hold China accountable for its outright obstructionism.

Last year, I launched an effort to help the United States and our international partners get ahead of the next pandemic. First, I pressed the WHO to launch an independent, interim review of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak so we could figure out what worked, what did not, and what we need to do to better prepare in the future.

I was joined in this effort by my Republican colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and was gratified by the leadership displayed by representatives of the United States, Australia, and others at the 2020 World Health Assembly to ensure its timely conduct. I continue to press for a full and impartial review that not only helps determine the origins of this pandemic, but also offers an honest assessment of the agency’s early warning and emergency response capabilities. Unfortunately, China is pressing equally hard to ensure this never happens.

I also introduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen the ability of the United States and our international partners to detect, prevent, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks before they cross borders and become pandemics. This bill, the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act, provides much-needed leadership and direction for U.S. global health security efforts overseas, while also incentivizing greater leadership and investment in global health security by others.

While it would be unreasonable to assume that the United States Congress can legislate its way out of future pandemics, the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act provides valuable tools and authorities to help protect Americans from infectious diseases that do not respect borders and threaten us all. I will continue to work with my colleagues on this legislation during the 117th Congress.  

Although a remarkable collaboration of governments, scientists, and private sector partners has yielded promising vaccines and therapeutics, it will take years to assess and fully recover from a global health catastrophe of this nature and scale.         

On this grim anniversary, we should all take a minute to reflect upon the true cost of weak global health security, including the loss of more than 2.6 million men, women, and children. We should express appreciation for the millions of lives saved by the heroic acts of health workers, first responders, and front line workers keeping vital services flowing. Yet, to truly honor the victims and the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need more than quiet reflection. We need action. I intend to act and invite my colleagues in Congress, the executive branch, and our international partners, including the WHO, to do the same.

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