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Americans should actually give a damn about the rest of the world

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Today, Americans are rightly focused on their own physical and financial health. Every day becomes harder as families try to manage without their incomes or prospects of going back to work. The emotional pull to open the country is great, even when our heads tell us that it is not yet safe to do so in most communities. It is tough enough to focus on meeting our daily needs, let alone think about the rest of the world. But there are at least six reasons why we should give a damn about everywhere else.

First, there is a boomerang effect that we know about in the United States. Governors have urged residents not to travel from one state to another for fear of new coronavirus outbreaks if bordering states are still in the throes of the pandemic. The same is true for the rest of the world. Disease knows no borders. When we open, if people start world travel again, we can and will likely feel the boomerang effect when the countries in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia, which are behind us in the number and intensity of coronavirus cases, refuel our own cases. How we manage international travel will have a profound impact on the cycle of sickness and death.

Second, if other countries are not capable of managing the coronavirus (not that we have done a great job ourselves), the boomerang effect will only intensify. Many countries in Africa do not have sophisticated health systems. When the AIDS crisis hit, the United States and other countries rushed to help to alleviate human suffering, but also in acknowledgment that if we did not, the AIDS epidemic might resurge in the United States. We helped countries build health infrastructures and train health workers. This mattered when the Ebola crisis hit. The United States trained around 200 Nigerian nurses who went to hard hit countries, saving our American resources and containing Ebola from turning into a global pandemic.

Third, even if we would like to rely more on ourselves in the aftermath of this pandemic, our supply chains are international. We have already seen this play out dramatically with the case of our national stockpile of masks and other personal protective equipment. Ingredients in medications we use and the Chinese soybean market, which is so critical to our domestic farmers, even as we criticize Beijing for its initial response to coronavirus, are just two examples on a growing list. The vaccine that we yearn for will come from an international effort as scientists, who are definitely used to working across borders, compare notes and share data. Global data will be crucial to understanding the coronavirus and how to conquer it.

Fourth, the United States needs international organizations to help us out even when they are imperfect. The World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the Group of 20 are all flawed, as is every institution at every level of our own government. No person and no institution are perfect. If these international bodies did not exist we would have to establish them. They are important for sharing best practices, information, collaboration, coordination, and success. To cast aside any efforts or initiatives to solve this international problem is foolish at best but far more likely lethal.

Fifth, other countries have important lessons for us that we desperately need to learn. Humility is necessary in times of crisis. We can learn from those who have done well and from those who have not done well. While we know countries have different governments, traditions, histories, and norms, we must learn lessons from South Korea, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, and others about what works and how to move forward. So as governors pick up tips from other states and form regional alliances to move forward, we can gain important insights from other countries.

Sixth, and perhaps most important, the coronavirus reminds us that we are all connected in this world. Climate change and globalization mean that other pandemics will likely come our way in the years ahead. While we might have different politics from our neighbors or great differences from another country, as people, we are all subject to this novel disease. We are all reduced to the same vulnerability even as some groups in our societies might suffer more from structural inequalities. This sense of our common humanity must propel us to work together even as we are apart. A life lost in Iran or Venezuela cannot mean less than a life lost in Norway or the United States. We need each other in a future that affects all of us. It is simply why we all have to give a damn about the rest of the world.

Wendy Sherman is a professor and director of the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership, a senior counselor with Albright Stonebridge Group, and served as a former under secretary with the State Department.

Tags America Coronavirus Democracy Government Health International Pandemic

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