A matter of urgency

Concern about slowed mail delivery from the US Postal Service—and the impact it may have on November’s election, when the pandemic is expected to lead to record numbers of voters using mailed or absentee ballots—has upended the annual Congressional summer recess, as the Speaker of the House has decided to bring Congress back into session a full month earlier than planned. An early return to session may breathe new life into stalled talks for a fourth package of federal assistance. Such new talks on assistance to fight COVID-19 would be good news for Americans struggling with the pandemic and for the millions of people in poor countries whose challenges during the pandemic have received insufficient attention from Washington.

A principal concern for renewed talks would surely be a restart of the expired $600 in weekly assistance for workers now unemployed because of the pandemic. Still out of work and having long exhausted the $1,200 stimulus checks that were provided initially to qualifying individuals, millions of families are now left with difficult choices on where to invest limited resources among competing needs of food, shelter and investments for their kids. Mounting evidence—including from Notre Dame economist James X. Sullivan and his University Chicago colleagues—demonstrates that the now-expired assistance had discernible positive impact on reducing poverty in the United States. But those notable gains appear to be temporary, absent additional investment from the federal government. The massive inequities in our economy, which we have long feared, appear to have been exacerbated by the pandemic, whose health and economic impacts are felt much more profoundly by people of color.

Developing countries and COVID-19

Yet even a reinstatement of these important investments alone would still be a missed opportunity. Any new talks need to correct what has been a regrettable and curious lack of urgent concern in Washington for how the pandemic is ravaging the least developed countries. These countries, the United Nations has warned, are at particular risk given their underdeveloped and underfunded health care infrastructure, their lack of access to clean water and housing, and the collapse of external demand leaving their economies at greater risk of continued weakness. All this makes these countries less able to implement common interventions of social distancing and aggressive handwashing.

Yet notwithstanding these warnings, the efforts of a coalition of humanitarian organizations arguing for $20 billion for international COVID-19 relief have been thwarted by the stalled talks in Washington. And while wealthy nations have so far dedicated $11 trillion to COVID response and relief efforts domestically, the Global COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan organized by the United Nations is just over 20 percent funded. The United States, which has provided $678 million to the plan, is the largest single contributor, but its contribution is well below its traditional 20 to 25 percent of the overall appeal, which in this case would be $2-$2.5 billion.

The case for providing and expediting assistance is profound. One’s own self-interest would recognize that as long as the pandemic endures anywhere—including in the least developed countries—it poses a threat to the United States. As retired Admiral Jim Stavridis and retired General Anthony Zinni said in March, “No matter how successful we are in fighting the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic at home, we will never stop it unless we are also fighting it around the world.” 

Our shared human dignity is expressed in our relationships not just with our fellow countrymen and women, but with every person.

The data suggests that the fight around the world remains a great challenge. On August 7, as recorded in Johns Hopkins data and reported by Al Jazeera and Axios, Africa surpassed one million recorded cases of COVID-19, with many more unreported cases and peak case numbers still to come. And the pandemic may be more mature—but still not at peak—in Latin America, where Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Chile—combined with South Africa—“account for more than a third of the world’s confirmed infections,” according to a recent story from Yasmeen Serhan of the Atlantic.

An internationalist’s vantage point and expertise would certify the need to confront this type of common threat—from an infectious virus that does not respect the sovereign boundaries of nation-states—to the international system. Humanitarian organizations, advocacy groups and development policy experts have been warning about an increase in extreme poverty, a wave of acute hunger for up to 250 million people and increases in preventable diseases due to suspended vaccination programs affecting 13.5 million children. And, as the Center for Global Development recently reported, these predictions are proving all too accurate; addressing them requires coordination among nation-states, international organizations, NGOs, and individuals.

At the Keough School, where there is a keen awareness of the reality of interdependence—and its benefits for all—international assistance for those struggling beyond US borders would bespeak American dedication to the common good and thus to integral human development. Our shared human dignity is expressed in our relationships not just with our fellow countrymen and women, we insist, but with every person.

An insufficient response

Irrespective of the motivation for the provision of assistance, the urgency of the need is obvious, but the response thus far is sorely lacking.

The House proposal for this fourth instance of federal COVID-19 assistance has zero dollars for the international response to COVID-19. A proposal from Senate Republicans but not yet considered by the full Senate has $4.34 billion in COVID-19 overseas resources, but it is directed only to vaccine production and distribution. And in the first three efforts enacted by the Congress and signed by President Trump, according to an op-ed in the New York Times in July from former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee David Milliband, the United States has provided nearly $1.6 billion for international efforts earlier this year but “. . .  as of [June]. . . three months into the crisis, just $11.5 million had been delivered to aid groups on the ground.”

More of that assistance is moving now, more than five months into the pandemic, but some assistance remains inexplicably stuck in Washington. A response informed by urgency would have all of that already enacted money already moving to the field—and new money following quickly behind it.

A path forward

Bringing Congress back to Washington to address concerns about the Postal Service and re-opening talks on the fourth package—hopefully informed by a Congress that has begun to demonstrate bipartisan support for additional international COVID-19 assistance—is the right next step. The quickest route to additional international assistance is through this emergency fourth package and not, as some have argued, putting money for international support in the budget package for Fiscal Year 2021. Though that money has to be agreed to by September 30, the end of Fiscal Year 2020, it is surely to be freighted with additional posturing in Washington as election day approaches. Moreover, it is also likely that Congress and the White House will be able to agree only to a portion of the overall funding for 2021—what is called a continuing resolution—by the end of September, thus slowing down even further these critical and timely US investments in international COVID relief.

After being too slow for too long to invest in strategies to help poor countries confront the challenges of COVID-19, the right thing for Washington to do now is threefold: provide immediate relief for American families in an emergency package enacted this summer; include in that package international assistance for the countries hardest hit by the pandemic and in no position to manage such a massive challenge on their own; and, ensure that this aid—as well as the aid already enacted—is disbursed as soon as possible to the poor countries most devastated by the pandemic. A posture informed by integral human development demands no less. 


Denis McDonough is professor of the practice of public policy at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. From February 2013 until January 20, 2017, McDonough served as White House Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.



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