An Opportunity for Progress: How the Biden Administration Can Aid in Ending the Pandemic Worldwide and Improve Our Global Reputation
By Evelyn Bond
Evelyn Bond is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania studying Political Science and Spanish.
When COVID-19 was first declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in early March of 2020, few knew just how devastating the effects of the outbreak would be. The virus has claimed over 2.9 million lives worldwide, including over 560,000 in the United States, and it continues to wreak havoc globally . With more than 31.1 million total positive cases, the United States has responded haphazardly to the pandemic since the beginning of the outbreak, and that disjointed response has cost hundreds of thousands of American lives . The failure and neglect began under the administration of former President Donald Trump, who swiftly dismissed the virus as being “no worse than the flu,” . The Trump administration primarily delegated the responsibility of containing the virus to the respective states, indicating that the federal government would merely act as their “back-up” . The former President continued to downplay the virus, controlling the media releases of the Center for Disease Control and other top government health experts, making it “hard for them to communicate accurate and lifesaving scientific information to the public” . National trust in the American government continued to fall rapidly , with the global image of the United States suffering substantially in response to the U.S.’s failure to handle the pandemic . Now, under the guidance of recently incumbent President Biden, the country has been afforded a new opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of the world. Taking the initiative in tackling the virus at a worldwide level could significantly curve the virus’s devastation and greatly improve our global reputation.
Trump’s COVID-19 response, reflecting his broader isolationist philosophy, entailed little national coordination and a significant xenophobic rhetoric at the global level. After the administration failed to enforce a centralized response, leaving the responsibility to state and local governments, uncoordinated policies were put into place, ineffectively containing the spread of the virus. As the threat of the pandemic grew and the death toll began to rise, the U.S. continued to demonstrate inadequate contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine, against the guidelines of the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, countries that followed the WHO’s advice, such as South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and New Zealand, were able to curb their respective outbreaks . The U.S. government was also slow to recommend masks to stop the virus from spreading, and even after the effectiveness of masks was established, the former President failed to lead by example, neglecting to wear one in public . The lack of a centralized national pandemic response strategy led to massive infection spikes, “placing enormous strain on health care systems and leaving no region untouched by the disease” . Referring to the virus as the “China plague,” Trump shifted his focus largely to blaming China for the outbreak, consistently emphasizing the initial failures of Beijing in controlling the pandemic, and enforcing strict travel restrictions on China . While persistently condemning the Chinese government, the Trump administration negotiated with China to receive medical equipment such as PPE for the United States, which some see as rather hypocritical . Finally taking initiative to end the virus, the Trump administration enacted Operation Warp Speed in May of 2020, with the aim to accelerate and facilitate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of vaccines and testing . Though Warp Speed proved effective on many fronts, helping to “deliver a pair of working vaccines in 2020, with more shots on the way” , many governors argue that the effort made promises that it failed to keep, with deliveries of doses falling short and reserve supplies [quickly] exhausted” . With an inherent lack of coordination, the initiative provided a disorderly rollout of vaccines, and in accordance with Trump’s “America first” rhetoric, focused inwardly on the United States alone . The alternative to Operation Warp Speed, the COVID Vaccines Global Access Plan (COVAX) is an international effort for vaccine production primarily funded by wealthy Western countries, with the goal to ensure “92 poorer countries will receive access to vaccines at the same [rate] as 98 wealthier countries” . The initiative began in April of 2020, and the Trump administration refused to join, as the effort is led by the World Health Organization, which the former President criticized as “China-centric” in its pandemic response . Critics argued this decision to not join COVAX was “shortsighted” and a “huge gamble,” and only further perpetuated Trump’s isolationist rhetoric . It is clear that former President Trump failed disastrously at responding to the COVID pandemic, neglecting to take action both at home and abroad. However, as the newly elected U.S. president, Joe Biden has been presented with a unique opportunity to take initiative and work to end the virus at both national and international levels.
By returning to established practices of disaster management, Biden’s response to the pandemic has already been greatly improved in comparison to the effort of his predecessor. In his first month in office, the President “positioned the federal government squarely at the front of the battle against COVID-19, tapping the military to staff mass-vaccination centers, joining with state and local officials to accelerate the pace of vaccinations, and requiring masks on buses, planes and federal property” . In early March, the President signed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill into effect, providing stimulus checks, unemployment assistance, local aid, and more . Biden’s effective response has garnered him high approval ratings, with 67% of Americans approving his handling of the pandemic, according to a late February Gallup poll . The President has additionally promised that there will be enough COVID-19 vaccines for all American adults by the end of May . Though his COVID-19 approach at a national level has proven thus far to be significantly better than Trump’s, especially in vaccine distribution, Biden should take advantage of the opportunity to help the broader global community to end the pandemic. In early February, Biden pledged $4 billion for the COVAX program, and though the United States is currently the single largest contributor to the COVAX fund, critics posit that Biden is simply “throwing money at the problem,” and not actually addressing the cause of the inequality of vaccine distribution, given that “COVAX's efforts have been throttled not by a lack of money but a lack of supply, and so far the limited doses that are being made have mostly gone to the U.S. and other rich countries” . After entering office with the promise of restoring multilateralism to the foreign policy strategy of America, Biden’s negligence in holding back vital supplies significantly contrasts his initial campaign narrative, and exacerbates the emerging problem of vaccine nationalism- which occurs when “governments sign agreements with pharmaceutical manufacturers to supply their own populations with vaccines ahead of them becoming available for other countries” . Though the U.S. has provided significant funding for COVAX, wealthier countries including the U.S., the U.K., Japan, and much of the European bloc have managed to attain millions of vaccine doses for their citizens, while poorer regions such as parts of Africa, South America, and Asia are not predicted to achieve “widespread immunization” until 2023 at the earliest . Thus, many argue Biden is pledging money to COVAX, while seizing supplies that other countries desperately need. As the Biden administration’s COVID relief efforts have been centered around immunization distribution solely at a national level, aiding in vaccine administration under the objective of “vaccine diplomacy” could restore America’s reputation as a global leader, and help to end the pandemic internationally. China has notably been a proponent of vaccine diplomacy, in December reporting to have provided 200 billion masks, two billion protective suits, and 800 million testing kits to more than 150 countries overall, in addition to sending 36 COVID medical teams to 34 countries . China has moved aggressively to access populations that were once aided by the United States, earning China friends and allies worldwide, notably in developing countries, such as Ethiopia . As a burgeoning global force, China has positioned itself as a leader in its tensions against the U.S., working to attain “the prestige of being seen as a nation with the capacity to act as a guardian of global public health” . In contrast, the U.S. has been found to account for 27% of the world’s COVID vaccine production, but 0% of the global supply beyond its own borders, while China is exporting 62% of its doses to other countries, after domestically controlling the virus early in the pandemic . To counter China’s rise to power and the America-first approach to foreign relations by the Trump administration, a strategy by the Biden team of working with COVAX to equitably distribute vaccines to developing countries could serve to rebuild ties with former U.S. allies and partners. Given the success occurring in vaccine distribution at a national level, the U.S. should similarly ramp up distribution in developing countries, regaining its former stature in providing disaster relief efforts for other countries in times of crisis. In comparison to the approach of his predecessor, Biden and his administration have made huge progress in the incorporation of multilateralism. However, if the President hopes to lead the global efforts in terminating the virus, this multilateralism needs to be more extensive, by means of global vaccine distribution.
The United States’s strategy of a COVID response has improved significantly under the leadership of President Biden. However, with the U.S. government choosing to solely prioritize the U.S. in its fight against the pandemic, Biden’s foreign policy approach to COVID effectively differs very little from that of former President Trump. Providing vaccines abroad could not only serve to reverse Trump-era tensions with former allies, but could also decrease the odds of viral mutations, making the current vaccines more efficient; thus the U.S. should not continue to throw money at the issue of global pandemic relief, and instead assist in the distribution of vaccines and other supplies for these countries in need . Additionally, aiding in COVAX efforts to supply equitable distribution will ensure the continuation of our global leadership; China has seized the opportunity by providing Global Southern countries with vaccines and supplies, connecting with these countries and building Chinese political power. The U.S.’s initial failure in tackling the pandemic “was not inevitable and doesn’t need to be permanent,” but it is essential that our country leads and does not follow in this time of crisis . We must take advantage of the opportunity to counter the viral outbreak through multilateralism, as “unilateralism is not going to be a solution to a crisis as large as the COVID-19 pandemic” . Hypocrisy is imminent when the country only works to help itself, as the United States has forever championed the ideals upon which it was founded: of freedom, democracy, and leadership.
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