Bill Gates’ big fear

Bill Gates’ recently testified that one of his biggest global fears is a massive pandemic, the likes of which we’ve not seen…a pandemic bigger than the influenza of 1918-1919 that killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people, more people than World War I. More people died of influenza in that single year than during the infamous, four-year, 14th century Bubonic Plague. Known as the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, it was a global disaster; the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history.

I wasn’t the only one in the audience who sat up and took notice. Gates was testifying before the Senate State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.), the subcommittee that works on foreign aid funding. If we think the Ebola crisis was frightening, one can only imagine what Gates has in mind. Ebola is only the most recent reminder that diseases know no borders.

{mosads}Which is why we can’t forget that building up health infrastructures around the world is also in America’s best interest. It’s about beds and buildings and a whole lot more. Some 50 diseases and illnesses that cripple, deform, blind and kill millions of adults and children each year are caused by a lack of access to safe water and sanitation. Children need to be vaccinated; and we must continue to train farmers in better agricultural techniques so they can feed their families and villages, even when the rains don’t come.

Our government works with other nations, non-profits and faith-based organizations to support global health and development. These partnerships pay off. Not only do we help protect our borders against disease, but poverty is being reduced, which means we’re creating trade partners. And we’re engaging in a kind of diplomacy that military commanders agree is indispensible to US security.

Every world religion defines itself by the way we treat our neighbor – from Micah to Mark and Muhammad. We’re defined by how we treat Cristian, a light-hearted little boy from Honduras who died from a treatable eye infection that grew into a tumor covering half his face. He was 11 years old. His treatment should have been straightforward, but he needed clean water and his family doesn’t have that.

As Americans, we know we can do better — and — we want to do better.

Polls show that most Americans mistakenly think we spend upwards of 25 percent of our federal budget on U.S. foreign aid. Most Americans think we should spend between 5 – 10 percent. Would that were so. The U.S. spends just 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid with less than half of that going to global health and development.

The world is at a turning point – a point of great momentum and great need. Foreign aid is the great-untold success story and the US deserves much credit. Six million fewer children around the world will die this year than in 1990. Polio is nearly eradicated which means ten million few children are crippled today than otherwise would be. More families are being lifted out of poverty, more girls are going to school, more children have access to water that won’t make them sick.

Yet need has never been greater. Conflict and war mean farmers can’t grow food for their families, kids are denied an education, refugee camps are overcrowded cesspools of illness and disease. Today the world has 51 million refugees — the greatest influx since WWII. 

To be at this turning point – between continued success and catastrophic failure – makes clear that now is the time for Congress to strengthen foreign aid. U.S. foreign aid funding leverages billions of dollars in private funds, provides a strong return on its small investment, and saves millions of lives. Cutting this budget won’t make a dent in the deficit.

Yet the House of Representatives budget committee is seeking to cut next year’s foreign aid budget by 16%, reducing it to 2008 levels. Then there’s that word, sequester, the nonsense notion of automatic cuts to all budgets, regardless of importance. Have they not seen the same headlines as the rest of us?

Yes, there are budget constraints and that is precisely why the U.S. cannot afford to reduce foreign aid funding. It’s time to not rollback progress but build on the great gains made in global heath.

I return to Bill Gates’ warning. The Senate State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee sat riveted in their chairs. These leaders seemed to understand. Global health includes us. We need to remind the rest of Congress of that very stark fact.

Barnett is a former award-winning network news investigative producer. She consults with nonprofits on strategic media and communications, working at the nexus of media, the faith and moral voice, and social justice. She is founder of Faiths for Safe Water.

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