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The generosity of vaccine diplomacy is a strategic investment, not a gift

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As increasing vaccination rates lead to a return to routine here in the United States, it’s time we shift our attention to the rest of the globe — because helping vaccinate the world isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Last week, the Mastercard Foundation pledged $1.3 billion to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help build the infrastructure that’s needed across Africa to properly accelerate the distribution of vaccines — vaccines that African countries have been struggling to get their hands on for months. The funds will be used to acquire vaccines for more than 50 million people, improve the continent’s vaccine manufacturing capabilities and strengthen public health institutions. Within days, President Biden also committed the United States to buying and distributing 500 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine around the globe.

To many, this information may be nothing more than a welcome headline on the morning news. But for those of us in public health, these two announcements signal a dramatic sea change — one that could finally help bring this pandemic to an end, once and for all. 

The lessons of this past year are clear: A long legacy of systemic underfunding and mismanagement of global public health infrastructure left us deeply vulnerable to a pandemic that we knew would hit us sooner or later. This negligence has resulted in the deaths of nearly 4 million people and counting — with millions more left to pick through the economic ruins. The damage didn’t have to be this bad. And the next time a pandemic hits, we must make sure that history does not repeat itself. 

My colleagues and I at Reform for Resilience, a commission tasked with making recommendations for a post-COVID world, are urging global leaders to think about a recovery plan rooted in sustainability and equity. We believe that the Mastercard Foundation and Biden’s donations are moving us in the right direction. These are not merely acts of kindness; they are acts of wisdom, shrewd long-term investments that will help shore up public health security so we’re ready for the next pandemic.

Because here’s the thing: In our interconnected world, a public health threat anywhere is a threat everywhere. By making these investments now, we can slow down the incubation and spread of variants, so we’re not always one step behind the virus. We can preempt the kind of outbreaks that have shut down one nation’s economy after the next — and slowed the world’s economic recovery. And we can start building the global infrastructure — laboratories, warehouses, distribution centers and the public health workforce — needed to guard against the health threats we will face down the road. 

Although many in the United States are finally walking into the light at the end of the tunnel, billions of people around the world are still shrouded in the dark uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, it’s estimated that 85 percent of vaccines have gone into the arms of those of us in high- and upper-middle income countries. And with so few players in the vaccine diplomacy space, vaccinating the rest of the world will be a difficult and complicated task, one that will likely require another 10 billion shots. Since the G7 only pledged 10 percent of that amount, we will need to find other ways to finish the job. 

The International Monetary Fund has now urged the international community to spend $50 billion to roll out vaccines quickly and efficiently and invest in global health security. To some, this figure may seem alarming. But the reality is, this kind of investment may be the only way to fend off deeper economic peril that could end up costing us far more. 

A recent report by the International Chamber of Commerce projected a global GDP loss of $9.2 trillion if we do not get developing economies the vaccines they critically need. With health care inequity rampant, supply chains unreliable, health care workers exhausted and the public health infrastructure in critical need of retooling, hoping it all just works out for the best would be the most expensive error we could make. 

Building back better, as the Biden administration calls it, should mean prioritizing public health and forming multilateral partnerships between governments, nonprofits and the private sector. We need to build more resilient systems within our interconnected global economy that promote health and wellness at the same time. We must also invest in strengthening our global health care and public health workforce, many of whom are experiencing dramatic burnout, before they exit the field or scare off a new generation from entering at all. 

Routine feels good here in the United States. But a two-track world, where rich nations return to normal and poorer nations do not, is not a recipe for strong economies or strong democracies. It will drag down both, causing deeper suffering from which no one is immune.  

We need to boost our efforts to immunize the world — and we need to do it now. 

Michelle A. Williams is dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and  Angelopoulos professor in Public Health and International Development at the Harvard Chan School and Harvard Kennedy School.

Tags COVID-19 vaccine Deployment of COVID-19 vaccines Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden Public health Science diplomacy and pandemics Vaccination Vaccine World Health Organization

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