Biden Can Make the United States a Global Health Leader Again

Trump withdrew from the WHO. Biden can rebuild ties with the organization and make the United States an influential player in the fight against COVID-19.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden takes his face mask off as he arrives to speak in Wilmington, Delaware, one day after Americans voted in the U.S. presidential election, on Nov. 4. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden has just been declared the winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. And with him in the White House, and a strong global health advisory team supporting him, the world can finally look forward to the United States returning to a multilateral approach to managing global crises. Never before has an election meant so much when it comes to pandemic preparedness and response. Now is the time for the United States to cooperate with countries across the world to suppress the coronavirus in a coordinated way.

President Donald Trump has blamed his own administration’s failings to control the coronavirus on the World Health Organization and on China. The WHO has unfairly borne the brunt of this criticism, with Trump withdrawing the United States from WHO membership. This position confuses what the WHO can and cannot do. The WHO cannot point fingers, do investigations, or force countries to reveal information if they don’t want to. It is a member-state body that works through consensus, soft norms, and diplomacy.

If praising China in January was the price of getting ahold of the virus sequencing, and having access for a WHO mission in February to get crucial epidemiological information out, isn’t that what diplomacy is all about? The WHO works by trying to bring all countries to the table, rather than publicly shaming countries for bad behavior, whichever country that might be. In a world where no country—whether a dictatorship or a democracy—is likely to keep lines of communication and access open if it’s publicly excoriated, the WHO uses carrots in the court of public opinion for positive reinforcement and its seasoned health diplomats in bilateral meetings behind the scenes.

Biden has committed to rejoining the WHO on his first day in office and taking the COVID-19 crisis seriously. As economic performance in the first half of 2020 has shown, countries that dealt with the public health problem first, and then the economic fallout, have done better compared to those that pursued purely economic objectives.

In fact, COVID-19 harm and non-COVID-19 harm go together, and they can be minimized together. This is the message that governments should be hearing around the world, and the United States can play a crucial role in getting countries around the table to agree on a joint strategy, shared objectives, and a timeline. It also needs to show a real commitment to science and to educating its population so they do not fall for false information circulating on the internet. A Biden win is a win for global health.

Devi Sridhar is a professor and chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. Twitter: @devisridhar