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Global response to a growing epidemic: The UN at work on coronavirus

Global response to a growing epidemic: The UN at work on coronavirus
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Earlier this month, I attended the World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board Meeting in Geneva. Despite many pressing health issues to respond to, one topic dominated: the novel coronavirus outbreak. Daily reports show that the number of cases of coronavirus — now known COVID-19 — is growing to nearly 73,000 in 25 countries (as of Feb. 18). 

It was clear from WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus’s remarks that as this outbreak grows, so too will the response of the entire United Nations system. And here’s what this scaled-up response shows: Despite the challenge of balancing the diverse priorities of 194 countries, the UN continues to evolve to meet our needs — an institution that is fit-for-purpose in the 21st century.

As more and more countries become impacted by this outbreak, a global, coordinated response is required if we want to prevent a full-blown global pandemic. As a result, the UN has taken swift measures to ensure a coordinated and appropriate level of response to match the evolving needs of this emerging disease threat. 

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As part of this, UN resident coordinators around the world, as well as the senior UN leadership team, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres have been briefed on the outbreak. And, on Feb. 6, a UN Crisis Management Team was activated at the highest leadership levels to enable WHO to focus on the health response and ensure that other agencies come to the table with their expertise.

This means the right mix of UN personnel can support detection, prevention, and containment efforts. What’s more, it allows for flexibility in funding and ensuring the necessary resources can be available if they are needed as this outbreak shifts and changes over the coming weeks.

The fact that the UN system is not only responding, but moreover escalating its response to match the level this outbreak demand is evidence of an evolving UN that is equipped to meet the needs of the world today. The UN has continued to evolve to meet the needs of the world since its founding 75 years ago. From the eradication of smallpox to trying to stop the spread of COVID-19, the UN and WHO have face challenges head-on—and continue to learn how we can best address global risks. 

This escalation of response comes in stark contrast to the Trump Administration’s release of its annual budget request this week.  That budget suggests slashing funding to the World Health Organization by more than 50% and depriving the UN’s regular budget of 29 percent of the U.S. government’s fair share of dues. UNICEF and other vital UN agencies had their allocations zeroed out altogether. 

Thankfully, Congress has shown for many years, on a bipartisan basis, that U.S. contributions to the UN are a vital part of U.S. security and foreign policy interests. 

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While challenges remain at WHO and the UN, they are the only entities capable of mounting the necessary resources and coordinated level of response it will take to contain the COVID-19 global health threat — among thousands of other health threats WHO monitors and addresses every year — to try and prevent it from spreading to lower-income countries where the results could be potentially catastrophic.

The fact that the UN system is adapting to meet the challenges that have evolved with a more connected, fast-paced, and increasingly pressurized global context means that it continues to be the institution the world can rely on.

Global cooperation exhibited through the UN system an essential and indispensable tool to solve the world’s planet-sized problems. No single country — not China and not the U.S. — can go it alone when up against challenges like unknown global diseases like novel coronavirus or the climate crisis.

We are stronger together and through the UN have the collective power and resources necessary to not only fight back against threats but create a safer, healthier, more prosperous world for everyone, no matter what country you may call home.  Congress must continue to do its part to fully fund these vital UN and global health programs.

Kate Dodson is the vice president for Global Health Strategy at the United Nations Foundation.