The time has come for a COVID-19 Marshall Plan

In his announcement of COVID-19 vaccine donations, President Biden evoked World War II by vowing that the U.S. will be the world’s “arsenal of vaccines.” It is time to instead harken back to the immediate postwar period, specifically to the Marshall Plan.

In June 1947, when Secretary of State George Marshall announced an initiative to help Europe emerge from the wartime ashes, Stalin was tightening his grip over Eastern Europe and the world was undergoing a fundamental transformation. The Marshall Plan stabilized Europe’s war-ravished economies and planted the seeds for a set of institutions that undergirded the liberal international order. It also showed that America was there to stay. After World War I, succumbing to the original round of “America First” isolationism, the U.S. retreated from its overseas commitments, but the Marshall Plan made it clear that this time would be different. 

Today, the world again is at an inflection point, with international institutions strained, authoritarianism on the rise, and as of May 20, 3.4 million killed by the virus. The Biden administration has a long list of priorities around which it wishes to rally the international community, starting with climate change and democracy. But after four years of Trumpism and decades of American political dysfunction, world leaders are understandably wary about betting their political futures on Washington’s resolve to fulfill its international commitments. 

Fortunately, the stars have aligned for the U.S. to prove it can lead by launching a 21st-century Marshall Plan to defeat COVID-19. Thanks to a swift vaccine rollout, the situation on the home front has improved enough to allow the administration to pivot to the global fight. With little fanfare, $15 billion has been pledged for the international response, ensuring that sizable resources can be deployed as an initial down payment. Plus, Biden has appointed a set of leaders whose Ebola response experience makes them particularly well-suited to the challenge. 

The pieces are falling into place, but what is needed is an effort to weave them together into a bold, more systematic plan. 

First, this should be initiated with a high-profile announcement that leaves no doubt that the U.S. is fully committed to defeating the pandemic around the world. It is time to put down a marker.

Second, the administration should use its clout to encourage other rich countries to increase funding for the global health organizations providing vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and other support for low- and middle-income countries under the umbrella of the World Health Organization’s Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. Since January, the U.S. has pledged $5.2 billion for their work, but they still face an $18.5 billion funding gap for 2021 alone. Until now, Norway and South Africa have taken the lead in pushing others to contribute, but nothing focuses the minds of world leaders like pressure from the White House. Making it clear that the pandemic response is Washington’s top diplomatic priority will go a long way.

Third, the world’s attention has rightly been on vaccines, but U.S. leadership is needed to underscore that a vaccine-only approach is not enough. The largest global funding gaps are actually for PPE, testing kits, medical oxygen, and such. Without progress, millions in developing countries will not live long enough to get their shots.

Fourth, Washington can set the tone for more systematic bilateral and regional efforts to fill the gaps in the global response. For instance, the ACT Accelerator’s COVAX campaign aims to vaccinate up to 30 percent of poor countries’ populations, but most need additional support to get to the levels required for herd immunity. U.S. aid for India and the “Quad” plan with Australia, Japan, and India to supply vaccines to Southeast Asia are steps in the right direction. But much more needs to be done.

Finally, a concerted campaign is needed to overcome supply-side constraints for vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. There is a desperate need for strong leadership and creative approaches to expand global manufacturing, bolster supply chains and bypass trade restrictions. U.S. backing for vaccine IP waivers and efforts to encourage production partnerships are a good start, but just a start.

The Biden administration has been inching forward, but the time has come to elevate U.S. efforts with a bold global COVID-19 plan that meets the urgency of the moment. Not only will this save lives. Like the Marshall Plan, it will also strengthen the liberal international order, demonstrate that the U.S. is back and prove that democracies can, indeed, deliver the goods, paving the way for Washington to make progress on its other priorities.

James Gannon is a senior fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE/USA), where he focuses on US-Asia relations and global health cooperation. Follow him on Twitter: @JimGGannon

Tags Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator Covax COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccine COVID-19 vaccines G20 Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden World Health Organization

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