Following the inauguration of his Presidency, Joe Biden has already given several executive orders which are of great significance, not only for the US but for the entire world. Stepping into the role amidst one of the greatest challenges in mankind's recent history, one thing is for certain: President Biden has a long to-do list. Covid-19 has shattered the US healthcare system and its economy during the pandemic, much like it has done in other countries. With no signs of the pandemic's severity slowing down in the US, the Biden administration has no time to waste, and must make haste in order to make up for the lost four years under his predecessor at the White House.
On the economic front, the country has experienced a fall in output and employment due to disruption in production and businesses. In October 2020, the International Monetary Fund projected that the US would have a 3.1 percent growth in 2021 as opposed to 3.9 percent on average for the advanced countries. As far as dealing with the economic crisis, Biden has been vocal on the need for government spending—unlike his predecessor, who would not support funding on state and city levels in order to combat the pandemic. Biden plans to make huge investments on infrastructure to generate employment. Spending on education will also be an important component of such investments. He plans to hike taxes on the upper class in order to create a fiscal space for his intended investment, given that government expenditures will increase federal deficit significantly.
The pandemic has exposed all of the hidden weaknesses within the US healthcare system. Unfortunately, sentiments towards the scale and extent of Covid-19's impact, on both human health and the economy, were weak and disrespectful towards the pandemic's ability to disrupt the very way of life. The result of which was a President who left the White House without any cohesive strategy to address the pandemic.
The entire world had assumed that an economy as developed and bountiful as the US would take the lead in tackling the pandemic. Unfortunately, these expectations were not met due to both insensitivity and incapability. However, the need for a comprehensive health response to the coronavirus is being felt since the pandemic's initial outbreak. Despite vaccines rolling out in less than a year since the pandemic began, not everyone is optimistic in overcoming the current health challenges. Access to vaccines is not guaranteed for everyone. Beyond that, there still remains uncertainty regarding the availability of vaccines for the less fortunate, especially in poor countries. Several global leaders have urged for the vaccine to be a public good that will be available to each and every person worldwide. But there are apprehensions that countries may exhibit nationalistic behaviours in their vaccine distribution methods. Such was the experience during the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009. Covid-19 vaccine nationalism will also further accelerate the divide between the poor and the rich in case of health outcomes, leading to poor economic and social outcomes in low income countries.
The initiative titled the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) that was proposed in June 2020 for ensuring equitable access to immunise the poorest of the world in an effort to end the pandemic has remained underfunded till now. Under COVAX, the poor countries would receive free vaccines but the rich countries would pay for the vaccines so that the fund can be used for poor and vulnerable populations. To recall, COVAX is a collaboration among GAVI (the vaccine alliance), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. It will help provide two billion vaccines to citizens of 190 countries, of which 98 are higher income countries and 92 are low and middle income countries.
Such initiatives are noteworthy and extremely useful during the current crisis. Unfortunately, at the political level, the world still has no clear plan on tackling the virus. There are not enough commitments on funds for the poor countries to deal with the pandemic. The UK and the EU have taken the lead in supporting the COVAX facility. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also committed a large amount towards the cause.
In September 2020, the former US President Donald Trump rejected the idea of joining the COVAX. He also stopped funding the WHO. Sadly, multilateral systems have taken a hit from the US government during the past four years. Under the Trump administration, the US distanced itself from organisations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, and the WHO, all of which have to work with governments to face the multitude of challenges our world presents.
However, things seem to be looking up. The US now intends to join the COVAX vaccine project. With President Biden willing to work together with the global community, there is optimism that the US will come forward to lead during the critical recovery path from the pandemic. Indeed, the National Strategy for the Covid-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness of President Biden spells out seven goals towards beating Covid-19. These goals include: (i) restoring trust with the American people through a robust whole-of-government response that puts science first; (ii) mounting a safe, effective, equitable vaccination campaign; (iii) mitigating the spread of the virus through expanding masking, testing, data, treatment, workforce, and clear public health standards; (iv) expansion of emergency relief and exercise of the Defense Production Act; (v) safely reopen schools, businesses, and travel while protecting workers; (vi) protecting those most at risk and advancing equity, including across racial, ethnic and rural/urban lines; and (vii) restoring US leadership globally, advancing health security, and building better preparedness for future threats.
As President Biden initiates all out efforts to tackle the pandemic, it is important to understand that the pandemic has to be controlled not within one country but in all countries due to the very nature of a pandemic. As citizens of a globalised world, people have to travel across borders. Therefore, vaccinating its own people within a country does not bring any lasting result. Keeping the majority of the poor people in other countries outside immunisation makes its own people vulnerable, and this has huge economic and social costs. That is why a collaborative and coordinated approach is needed when it comes to combatting the pandemic.
The world will watch curiously how President Biden steers the journey towards a pandemic free world.
Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the organisation she works for.