Naresh Kumar: To respond to coronavirus, we need to think globally

(Robert Bumstead | AP file photo) In this 2017 photo, the U.N. World Food Program's logo is seen at the agency's headquarters in New York. The United Nations says the ranks of the world’s hungry grew by 10 million last year and warns that the coronavirus pandemic could push as many as 130 million more people into chronic hunger this year. The grim assessment is contained in an annual report released July 13 by the five U.N. agencies that produced it.

Eddie squeezed peanut paste from the pouch. His pot belly belied that he had kwashiorkor: a protein deficiency that was making Eddie more defenseless against infections.

Mary, his mother, brought him to our hospital because Eddie was weak, swollen and irritable and she didn’t have the tools to help him. Not only did we know what was wrong, but we had a program from Boston there. They helped Mary go home with more pouches and some education about how to keep her son from getting sick again.

Our world is not well. We didn’t have the tools to handle the coronavirus when it showed up. America’s wealth belied deficient systems which brought down our defenses and, with it, the global economy. We need to be thinking differently in order to achieve the best possible outcome going forward — to help ourselves and the world recover.

Pre-pandemic, we had relatively stable markets. We were winning the fight against infectious diseases across the globe, in no small part thanks to American leadership making proven bipartisan-supported programs like PEPFAR and GAVI a priority. Millions of kids were getting essential meals from school.

Now the World Food Programme reports the number of people living in crisis-level hunger (like Mary and Eddie) is rising to potentially double the 149 million of last year.

Hunger and malnutrition are a consequence of deficient systems worsened by arguably the biggest international humanitarian crisis in the last 50 years. A series of policy decisions have made a bad situation worse at home and abroad. Disrupting our support for the World Health Organization came at a time when normally lean public health programs are under a strain unprecedented in the modern era.

If we were worried about Chinese influence before, this will not help. In the over $3 trillion coronavirus response package, less than 1/10th of 1% has been focused on international efforts. This is in stark contrast with our legacy of principled American leadership.

Because we have not included robust international funding in our coronavirus response package, we can’t help with saving thousands of children who could die every day and prevent millions more from falling into extreme poverty, according to UNICEF.
Oxfam’s Hunger Virus briefing reports that many of the hunger hotspots are in politically unstable places, such as Afghanistan and Syria. States at risk of failure will likely become future threats to national and international peace without our help.

In 2001, we learned the painful lesson that terrorism doesn’t respect borders, and neither does the coronavirus. What we don’t spend now will have consequences later. We need reliable tactics for right now. And we need smart strategies for the future peace of our planet and our nation.

This is why I call on Utah’s congressional delegation to insist at least $12 billion (0.4%) of the coronavirus relief be used in working together with international partners on a global response. These international and transparent investments will save thousands of children’s lives and help strengthen and prepare systems in order to get us through shared current and future international crises.

How much are we willing to spend on preventing another pandemic, knowing what this one has already cost us?

“I would give everything,” said Mary, to keep the son she brought to the tiny hospital in Nyakibale, Uganda, alive and well. Their motto “Heal the sick” (Matthew 10:8) served as a kind of promise to her. As a nation, we have an exceptional opportunity to offer this promise to the world. Is it too much a stretch to imagine that in doing so, we too can be healed?

Naresh Kumar

Naresh Kumar is a public health and clinical research professional from Utah. He once lived and worked at a hospital in Uganda. Currently he lives in Salt Lake City and is part of a research team studying the coronavirus and is a volunteer advocate for ending extreme poverty and preventable diseases.
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