The right response to the coronavirus is global engagement, just like after World War II

We chose wrong after World War I and the Ebola outbreak. Did we learn from history? Will we make the right decisions and avoid the same old mistakes?

The right response to the coronavirus is global engagement, just like after World War II

I realized I was watching too much television when I started thinking about this global pandemic like an old game show. Contestants have a choice between prizes behind Door No. 1 and Door No. 2 — behind one door would be the loser prize, like a goat, and behind the other, the winner might get a new boat. To respond to this global crisis, we have a similar choice, but with deadly serious consequences. The good news is, we don’t have to rely on luck to pick the right door. We know the answer.

Behind Door No. 1 is America turning inward. That’s the door we picked after World War I when a war-weary nation retreated from a war-weary world — sitting out from the new League of Nations. What followed was bad for America: the Great Depression, the spread of fascism and World War II.

Behind Door No. 2 is an engaged America. We chose this path after that second World War. Under the leadership of the legendary Gen. George Marshall, we helped rebuild Europe and Asia, which became our most important export markets. From new alliances through NATO to the United Nations, our post-war efforts strengthened our economy for generations and kept Americans safe.

History should guide our decisions

The question is whether we have learned the lessons of the past. And when the fate of the world is hanging in the balance, will we make the right decisions and avoid the same old mistakes?

Sometimes we do. After 9/11, our nation’s bipartisan commission outlined dozens of concrete recommendations to shore up our national security. We acted and avoided another high-magnitude terrorist attack at home.

Katlehong, South Africa, on May 6, 2020.

In other cases, we’ve fallen short in learning from past crises. After the Ebola outbreak of 2014, four commissions led by top health experts recommended investments designed to help stop a future disease. Many echoed Bill Gates’ now-famous 2015 TED Talk warning of a global flu pandemic on the scale of COVID-19. The very first recommendation of a Harvard-led Ebola commission called for adequate resources to help developing countries respond to an outbreak. Two commissions actually set a deadline to achieve this core public health capacity: 2020.

What happened? In recent years, more than 60 countries signed up to be part of the international framework — the Global Health Security Agenda — but the CDC tells us 70% of the world still remains underprepared for a public health emergency. Ultimately, change has come too slowly — and in the midst of COVID-19, change hasn’t gone nearly far enough.

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As long as this virus is spreading anywhere in the world, Americans are at risk. Infection rates are rising throughout the developing world, with the latest projections suggesting at least 300,000 deaths in Africa alone. I have traveled to refugee camps in Rwanda and walked densely crowded streets in Kibera, Kenya — places without running water or capacity for social distancing. It’s a recipe for a profound humanitarian and economic crisis and heightens the chance that COVID-19 could rebound back to America — even if we do everything right.

Smart and right to fund the global fight

Step one is to make sure Congress’ next coronavirus aid package comprehensively responds on both the domestic and global fronts. That means emergency resources for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and critical global players like The Global Fund, the World Health Organization and Gavi, the vaccine alliance. The right thing to do is also the smart thing to do for the health and economic security of the American people.

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We can’t stop there. If this pandemic has proven anything, it’s that what happens globally matters locally. China knows this. While there will be time to assess their early missteps, Beijing’s highly visible efforts providing supplies around the world cannot be underestimated as they play to win the great power competition. Before this pandemic, more than 50% of our exports went to the developing world. Now our economic recovery will be even more dependent on these emerging markets — and sitting on the sidelines as China steps up won’t help.

As Admiral James Stavridis and General Anthony Zinni wrote, “we can pay now or we will pay later.”

So do we choose Door No. 1 and turn inward, repeating the same mistakes we made after World War I or after Ebola? Or do we choose Door No. 2 and engage with the world, as we did after World War II, and actually invest in a Marshall Plan for the 21st century?

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Recently, I’ve been on countless Zoom calls with business and military leaders, global health experts and diplomats. They all agree that America has no choice but to walk through the door that leads to sustained global engagement. It won’t just determine how long this pandemic lasts, it will protect our national and economic security long into the future. The only question is whether we have the political will to do so.

It’s too late to turn back the clock and do what we should have done after Ebola. But we still have a chance to get it right this time.

Liz Schrayer is the president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Follow her on Twitter: @LizSchrayer


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