Congress can help with pandemic recovery even beyond US borders

Congress can help with pandemic recovery even beyond US borders
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Congress has appropriated nearly $3 trillion to try to save American workers and the U.S. economy from the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Realistically, however, the effort must go beyond domestic concerns and address the global catastrophe the coronavirus has created if the U.S. is to rebuild and recover successfully. These include humanitarian, economic and security concerns.

Humanitarian concerns

The impact of the pandemic on the developing world is coming into focus. The United Nations believes that COVID-19 could kill more than 300,000 people in Africa. While this is a significant number, the impact of the virus reaches well beyond immediate concerns about its infections and fatalities. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that deaths from malaria in Africa this year could be as high as 769,000 — more than double the total of two years ago. This surge, at least in part, is the result of a shifting of resources to combat COVID-19. 


Another issue that has plagued the developing and developed world is the 70 million displaced persons globally. There are 12 million refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East. The WHO has warned about the devastating impact of the virus on these refugees. In Africa, where by some estimates there are more than 24 million refugees and displaced persons, assistance has been stalled because of slowed or stopped transportation during the pandemic.  

Basic efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, such as washing hands, are greatly impeded by a lack of soap and water. The refugee crisis has hurt European Union nations as well.  For example, there are 40,000 asylum seekers in Greece who lack basic sanitation conditions and health care, according to a Refugees International report, making them particularly susceptible to the virus. Population density in some developing countries is a problem, making it impossible to implement the social distancing measures necessary for mitigating the spread of the virus.

Economic concerns 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has indicated that we could be headed for the worst recession in a century as a result of the pandemic. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 2 billion people depend on day jobs and in a closed economy those jobs don’t exist. Beyond the drying up of day labor or work in the developing world, these economies depend on remittances from workers in more advanced economies. As advanced economies shut down because of the virus, the economic lifeline of remittances — the World Bank estimated that in 2018 there were $689 billion in remittances being sent to the developing world — is no longer flowing.  

In the Middle East, where there have been protests over declining economic conditions, the deadly combination of corruption, constant conflict and the virus will upend already precarious economic conditions. Some analysts fear that the next Arab Spring/Awakening will be driven not by a cry for more representative government but by anger over survival.  


The IMF estimates that 60 percent of the world’s economy is connected to the purchasing power of emerging markets. A collapse of those markets has a negative impact on developing and developed nations. The burgeoning debt burden of these emerging market nations is a grave concern. Oxford Economics estimates that, since 2007, their debt has increased from 70 percent to 165 percent of their economic production.  

Trade, an important piece of global economic growth, has been declining over the past decade.  Concern over the lack of resources to combat the pandemic means the shift away from trade and global economic connections will likely increase. This will hit developing nations the hardest — i.e., those that are at the labor-intensive end of the global value chain, as well as those that depend on commodities to sustain their economies.

Security concerns

The chaos that the pandemic is causing globally will have major security repercussions.  Non-state bad actors, including terrorist and criminal organizations, are trying to fill the gap that governments cannot, helping those who have been hit the hardest. Criminal gangs are increasing their involvement with human smuggling and kidnapping, as well as cybercrime. The residual impact of these trends could intensify security problems as particularly vulnerable nations begin to recover from the pandemic.

John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, is quoted as saying that extremists are discussing how to weaponize the virus.  The George Washington University Program on Extremism recently held a program on the connection between the pandemic and terrorism. They have indicated that extremist groups are trying to take advantage of the crisis: “Jihadist groups and chat rooms have been touting the coronavirus as a ‘soldier of Allah’ and divine punishment for infidels.” They also suggest that domestic neo-Nazi groups have been discussing ways to spread panic and infest members of law enforcement and the Jewish community.

A congressional commission/study group

During the height of the Iraq War, Congress created a bipartisan study group to consider options on how to respond to what was becoming a more complicated and grave situation for the U.S. in Iraq. Its recommendations were a useful part of the debate over U.S. policy toward Iraq. Using the Iraq Study Group as a model, Congress should consider creating a nonpartisan commission or study group to examine the repercussions of the pandemic on the U.S. and the international community.

Because of the breadth and severity of this crisis, the group should consist of experts and practitioners who have extensive experience in dealing with complicated issues — development and philanthropic experts, national security experts, retired military leaders and economic experts. 

This commission could assess the immediate, near- and long-term humanitarian, economic and security issues facing the U.S. and all nations. It could provide a factual foundation for understanding the implications of the pandemic, and suggest recommendations to inform congressional leaders of both parties on next steps that would lead to a positive, sustainable recovery.  

Article One of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress shall “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” A pandemic commission or study group would help congressional leaders fulfill this constitutional mandate during this unprecedented crisis.

William C. Danvers most recently was a World Bank Group Special Representative for International Relations. He previously was deputy secretary general of the OECD, and worked on national security issues for 35 years in the executive branch, on Capitol Hill, for international organizations and the private sector.