Shutting down coronavirus task force is an abdication of global leadership

Shutting down coronavirus task force is an abdication of global leadership
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On Tuesday, the same day that the Trump administration was publicly outed for intentionally downplaying the pandemic, the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) announced the abandonment of its coronavirus task force.  

A quick numbers check: As of today, more than 6.4 million Americans are infected with the coronavirus. 191,628 are dead. Globally, there are more than 28.2 million active cases and over 910,000 deaths.

COVID-19 rages on. It hardly seems a time to be dismantling anything intended to address the pandemic.

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I’ve seen firsthand how pivotal a centralized task force can be in organizing and implementing a sustainable global response to a disease outbreak. When I served at the State Department during the Ebola crisis, I helped to fortify the Ebola taskforce — a crisis response unit intended to improve coordination and communication across involved offices. We even brought back a retired ambassador to oversee the task force and monitor the day-to-day, hour-by-hour developments of the epidemic. We didn't respond to the situation with business as usual processes, because Ebola's devastation was everything but business as usual.

USAID claims that the task force’s operations are being absorbed into bureaus and divisions with the help of a Readiness Unit, but as Politico reported, employees are already dubious of its effectiveness and fear it will become buried in the bureaucracy. USAID Acting Spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala justified the deconstruction by calling the pandemic a “long-term challenge.” 

We’re undoubtedly in this fight for the long haul because we didn’t take the virus seriously when it appeared and continue to fail to take meaningful action. Other industrialized nations did, and some of them have since returned to near normalcy. COVID-19 did not need to become the challenge it did, and certainly not as long-term. A crisis requires a crisis response, which is why USAID stood up the coronavirus taskforce in the first place. To suggest circumstances have changed substantially is to disregard reality. But denial is not a development strategy. 

Dismantling the task force is more than illogical and irresponsible; it’s a stunning missed opportunity. Since its establishment, USAID has played an essential role in fighting pandemics around the world, acting — explicitly or not — as an arm of U.S. diplomacy. 

In response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, USAID immediately deployed to help the affected governments in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra LeoneMore than $2.4 billion was invested directly into aid, not only promoting positive health outcomes and economic recovery, but also supporting broader infrastructure, education, and self-reliant governance initiatives. The agency was instrumental in successfully reducing the number of cases to zero. USAID was also an international force in the fight against SARS in 2003, supporting the Red Cross Society of China’s efforts to mitigate the spread.

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Of course, eradicating the pandemic is a push for the global good. As USAID itself has said, a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere. But the pandemic also presents a chance for the United States to reestablish and reimagine its role on the global stage.

While other nations like Canada, Australia, and South Korea have taken successful steps to mitigate the virus within their own borders, we have yet to see a concentrated international effort beyond coordinated vaccine development. Also, as the U.S. and China compete for influence in regions that have been hard-hit, there is a real opportunity for the U.S. to step up and allocate resources to support nations like India and Peru as they continue to see spikes. During the Ebola crisis, as China pulled out its contractors and deserted affected countries, the U.S. sent in USAID and the military to build public hospitals. Our quick, effective action then wasn’t simply the right thing to do; it strengthened our diplomatic and community relationships in West Africa and beyond.

The U.S. can demonstrate compassionate leadership now too, but not if we’re already shutting down our response teams and refusing to acknowledge the truly unprecedented nature of this moment. We shouldn’t be integrating the coronavirus pandemic into normal, everyday operations. We should be treating it like the crisis it is.  

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah served as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of State during the Ebola crisis and Policy Director for First Lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaTo honor Justice Ginsburg's legacy, Biden should consider Michelle Obama National Urban League, BET launch National Black Voter Day The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - White House moves closer to Pelosi on virus relief bill MORE at the White House. She is now President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.