The US coronavirus response: A failure of foreign policy

The US coronavirus response: A failure of foreign policy
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpSecret Service members who helped organize Pence Arizona trip test positive for COVID-19: report Trump administration planning pandemic office at the State Department: report Iran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report MORE’s response to COVID-19 is a domestic tragedy. It’s also a foreign policy failure that has spread disease to other countries, provoked regional tension and risked an untold number of lives, including the lives of Americans.

The number of deported migrants testing positive for COVID-19 upon return to their home country keeps rising. Guatemala has identified over 100 such cases. Colombia reports two dozen. Cases have also been reported in Haiti, Mexico and Jamaica. Though tight restrictions limit who comes into the U.S., the Trump administration insists on deporting people from here, despite the threat of asymptomatic infection, and surging outbreaks of COVID-19 in U.S. immigration facilities.

There is no margin of error for these countries when it comes to COVID-19. Guatemala was already 3,500 short the number of medical facilities it needs to care for the country’s 15 million people. Haiti is short of doctors and ICU beds and has less than 100 ventilators to ration among a population of 11 million. That country’s health system buckled under a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and has yet to recover from a near decade-long cholera outbreak linked to UN peacekeepers who carried the disease, but weren’t screened. Ten years on, Haiti is bracing for another outbreak exported from abroad, this time from the United States.

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How did it get this bad? Poverty and corruption are partly to blame, but so is U.S. foreign policy. Again, look at Haiti. Rebuilding after the 2010 earthquake required a global investment in local housing and infrastructure projects, but much of the money pledged by the U.S. benefited federal agencies and private contractors. Funds were also needed to shore-up community resilience and to compensate over 1 million cholera victims and the families of nearly 10,000 who died from the disease. But in a lawsuit seeking damages from the UN, the Obama administration backed the UN’s claim that it had no obligation to answer to cholera victims in court or pay damages for the harm it caused.

President Trump has refused to fund a UN cholera account, established reluctantly under international pressure, even with money left over from Haiti’s expired peacekeeping mission. Congress sidestepped that decision, but U.S. wavering discouraged contributions from other countries. These decisions left Haiti's health care system in shambles, limiting life outcomes beyond the pre-existing burdens of poverty and political volatility. U.S. deportations will make matters worse, leaving many Haitians — likely some with COVID-19 — no choice but to seek refuge in the U.S. Did Trump, the isolationist, not think that through?

Trump's assault on global health initiatives has also made the world less safe. In 2019, his administration let funding lapse on a USAID partnership with scientists across the globe, including labs in Wuhan, China, that focused on pandemic threats and trained health professionals to control outbreaks at the source. He’s now turned his back on efforts coordinated by the World Health Organization to fast-track testing and develop a vaccine, and scuttled a statement by world leaders that would have publicly acknowledged inequalities in health resources and human suffering caused by the pandemic.

His latest threat to withhold funding from WHO would blunt the organization’s reach, and lend China even more weight over WHO decisions. Trump's claim that a cozy relationship between WHO and China led to foot-dragging in the initial response to the pandemic may turn out to be true. But ceding leverage to a country so committed to hiding the ball is counter-productive, given everything we’ve yet to learn about the virus and China’s response.

No one is naive enough to think that empathy would move this president, who has referred to poor nations as “shit-hole” countries. But pushback makes a difference. As a result of organized advocacy, deportations to Guatemala were temporarily suspended, and the Department of Homeland Security has signaled tentative support for testing some deportees for COVID-19. These steps cannot undo damage already done, but they move us in the right direction.

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Still, more is required. Absent wide-spread testing, the Trump administration must ground deportations in favor of rational measures to control COVID-19 inside immigration detention centers, and outside. Short of that, it must respect the sovereignty of nations that refuse to allow deportation flights to land, without threatening visa sanctions against them. Congress should act on legislation that's been introduced in the House to temporarily suspend deportations to Haiti, and should expand that measure to other countries.

There is no denying this president's callous indifference to immigrants. But in sloughing off concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in other countries, he’s failing to keep Americans safe at home and abroad. So long as infectious disease is present anywhere, it is a threat here. This is the reality President Trump has yet to understand, or act on. As constituents, we must support efforts to change that.

Our lives depend on it.

Kathleen Bergin teaches Disaster Law at Cornell University Law School and is on the Steering Committee for Project Blueprint, a human-rights based foreign policy organization.