Just As President Joe Biden Is Inaugurated – United States Reconciliation With World Health Organization Begins
President Joe Biden and FIrst Lady Jill Biden descend the Capitol steps to the Inauguration ceremony.

Right after the pomp and ceremony of the heavily guarded inauguration of new US President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris is over, a deadly serious new war on COVID-19 is due to get underway –  including rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO) as part of the new Administration’s seven point COVID pandemic plan

That agenda will also include buying into the WHO co-sponsored COVAX facility for fair global vaccine distribution – a move that is sure to be a welcome shot in the arm of the initiative that has not quite yet gotten off the ground – despite WHO assertions that it is ready to deploy some 2 billion vaccines this year to countries worldwide. 

Thursday’s WHO Executive Board will be the stage for the first scene of the US-WHO reconciliation, featuring an appearance by White House Covid Task Force head, Anthony Fauci, as head of the US delegation to WHO. 

“Dr. Fauci will be the head of the US delegation at the WHO Executive Board and will deliver the remarks,” a spokesperson for the US Mission in Geneva told Health Policy Watch on Wednesday. “I understand that Fauci will be speaking tomorrow at the EB.”

“The combination of rejoining, taking part in COVAX and looking at how we can help make sure the vaccine is equitably distributed is something we’re going to take on,” Biden-designate Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

WHO’s Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was quick to congratulate the new US Administration, just after the Inauguration, in a tweet that reflected the barely-disguised WHO glee over the new US team: Congratulations President @JoeBiden and Vice-President @KamalaHarris on your inauguration. Here’s to a healthier, fairer, safer, more sustainable world.”

The plan to “immediately restore our relationship with the World Health Organization” is only one element in the larger US effort to “rebuild and expand defenses to predict, prevent and mitigate pandemic threats, including those coming from China” according to the seven point COVID plan, released by the Biden Administration on Wednesday morning.  

Not Perfect, But… 
President Joe Biden signs his first presidential proclamation noting his cabinet appointments – team all masked.

The relationship with WHO “while not perfect — is essential to coordinating a global response during a pandemic,” the plan states.

Other key points on the diplomatic front include plans to rebuild or expand several White House pandemic alert and tracking initiatives that were gutted, ignored or abandoned by the former administration of Donald Trump. These include plans to:

  • Immediately restore the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, originally established by the Obama-Biden administration.
  • Re-launch and strengthen U.S. Agency for International Development’s pathogen-tracking program called PREDICT.
  • Expand the number of CDC’s deployed disease detectives so we have eyes and ears on the ground, including rebuilding the office in Beijing.

During the first year of the pandemic, critics decried Trump’s moves that had in fact dismantled important research collaborations with Chinese or other non-governmental groups and institutes into issues such as wild coronavirus variants, which had provided the United States with valuable insights into pathogen trends and risks regionally and globally.

Whether or not US technical experts would be welcomed back into China again in the highly charged atmosphere that has emerged during the course of the pandemic’s evolution is another matter, however – in light of the months that it took to arrange just one visit by a WHO-sponsored team of experts researching the SARS-CoV2 virus origins – which only just landed in Wuhan on 14 January. 

Free Covid Testing & Mask Mandates & Equitable Distribution of Treatments And Vaccines 
Almost 10 million Americans are infected with COVID-19 and 400,000 have died

Other features of the seven-point plan focus mostly on the domestic US COVID threat – which has now claimed the lives of some 400,000 people. Infection rates remain among the highest in the world; mortality rates are higher than those in India, and the vaccine rollout has been plagued by a lack of infrastructures to actually administer the jabs.

The Biden-Harris COVID initiatives would include efforts to double drive-through testing sites and provide free COVID-19 testing. 

In addition, the Administration plans to invest US $25 billion in a vaccine manufacturing and distribution plan that will “guarantee it gets to every American, cost-free,” says the statement, the first to be issued by the new administration under the official rubric: whitehouse.gov 

While Trump and his associates even bragged about the privileged care that they received when struck down with COVID, the Biden plan strikes a distinctly different tone, pledging to ensure that: “everyone — not just the wealthy and well-connected — in America receives the protection and care they deserve, and consumers are not price gouged as new drugs and therapies come to market.”

But the plan also calls for much stricter rules about masking and other non-pharmaceutical measures, saying that the new Administration will implement a national “mask mandates” nationwide. 

The statement is another U-Turn on Republican White House administration policies which were ambivalent about masking at national level – fostering a polarized public debate about masking, which came to be seen as a political, rather than public health, symbol.   

Even so, the new administration has stepped back from a campaign promise to make masking mandatory at the national level – insofar as it lacks the authority to do so without more polarizing legislation. 

And instead, the new Biden plan calls upon average Americans, Governors and local authorities to make wearing masks in public mandatory in their states.  

The White House is also expected to mandate masks in federal buildings and for interstate travel, e.g. airports and air travel routes – where it has direct control. 

Fix PPE Problems For Good 

The Administration will use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of masks, face shields, and other PPE “so that the national supply of personal protective equipment exceeds demand and our stores and stockpiles — especially in hard-hit areas that serve disproportionately vulnerable populations — are fully replenished.”

The fact sheet notes that this would also build up a “flexible American-sourced and manufactured capability to ensure we are not dependent on other countries in a crisis.”

Protect Older Americans and Others at High Risk 

Health equity – words never used in the Trump administration, will also figure prominently in the Administration’s approach to the pandemic, with the creation of a new “COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force” that had previously been proposed by Vice President Harris. 

The Task Force would “provide recommendations and oversight on disparities in the public health and economic response. At the end of this health crisis, it will transition to a permanent Infectious Disease Racial Disparities Task Force.”

The Administration will also foster the creation of an online dashboard providing real time information about infection rates by zip code – a measure enacted by many countries months ago. 

“This information is critical to helping all individuals, but especially older Americans and others at high risk, understand what level of precaution to take.”

Clear and Consistent Evidence-Based Guidance 

Finally the “Build back Better” Fact Sheet emphasizes that it will provide science-based guidance to communities and the public about social distancing and other non-pharmaceutical measures that can help control COVID – along with emergency support to schools, state and local governments, and a “restart package” for small businesses that can help create a stronger social and economic safety nets, and win public support for such measures, when mandated. 

“Social distancing is not a light switch. It is a dial,” states the fact sheet. “President Biden will direct the CDC to provide specific evidence-based guidance for how to turn the dial up or down relative to the level of risk and degree of viral spread in a community, including when to open or close certain businesses, bars, restaurants, and other spaces; when to open or close schools, and what steps they need to take to make classrooms and facilities safe; appropriate restrictions on size of gatherings; when to issue stay-at-home restrictions.”

Image Credits: Worldometers.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.