What’s on the Horizon for Covid-19
April 16, 2020
CALEB DIAMOND: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Caleb Diamond with the External Relations team here at CSIS.
The headlines say, of course, the pause in WHO funding, and our experts here today are going to cover that. And then we’re also going to talk about the longer-term themes across the world as well.
Before we begin, I’d like to introduce our speakers with us today. We’ll start with Steve Morrison. He’s director of the CSIS Global Health Policy Center. He’ll be followed by Mike Green, senior vice president for Asia and the CSIS Japan Chair. Next up will be Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program. And then we’ll close with Stephanie Segal, senior fellow with the Simon Chair in Political Economy here. So each will deliver opening remarks, and then I’ll open it up to a question-and-answer session. And with that, we’ll turn it over to Steve.
J. STEPHEN MORRISON: Thank you, Caleb. And thanks to the journalists who are joining us this afternoon. I’ll just run through some – a summary of what’s happened and some thoughts about what this means.
President Trump announced a 60-day suspension of support to WHO. Not entirely clear what that announcement means as to what a suspension and what portions of the U.S. support will be reviewed. We’re currently in a two-year, $893 million budget, and we currently account for 21 percent overall of WHO funding.
President Trump’s criticisms were that the WHO had opposed the U.S. travel ban on China, delayed the declaration of a public-health emergency of international concern. There had been a(n) Emergency Committee meeting January 23rd. It got postponed to the decision taken on January 30th. That there had been, he – the president alleges there was a failure to investigate human-to-human spread disinformation – human-to-human spread, and by doing that had engaged in disinformation. Part of that also involves tensions over Taiwan and the treatment of Taiwan. I’ll say a bit more about that in a moment. And that WHO engaged in overreliance on China for information.
This has triggered very widespread opposition, vocal opposition. Bill Gates described it as, “as dangerous as it sounds.” On the Democratic side, Eliot Engel, chair of House Foreign Affairs, Speaker Pelosi, senior leadership at the Chamber of Commerce, senior leadership of the American Medical Association, the AU, the European Union, prime ministers of New Zealand and Australia, and expressions from the U.K., Germany, China, Russia. Interestingly – and I’ll get back to this later in terms of the consequences – Republicans in Congress, particularly in the House, are seeking documents as part of an investigation. And publicly, they’re falling in line behind the president – either not issuing any statement or issuing a statement, as in the case of Senator Hawley, in support of this. So this is looking like on the Hill opinion lining up behind the president.
Tedros – Director-General WHO Dr. Tedros – has been very cautious in his response, very conciliatory in his statements, focusing on the pandemic threat faced by Americans and the WHO desire to continue to be as supportive as possible. In that response, I take that his cautious response is not – is trying to avoid anything that will escalate this confrontation. There had been statements made by him earlier that had – that had contributed to an escalation. He’s attempting to leave the door open towards some kind of conciliation, to be – to be determined.
What motivated all of this? The general consensus seems to be that this was fed – this decision by President Trump was fed by election-year politics, a certain fear and desperation around what is happening in the domestic pandemic and the response, and the economic consequences. And so what this amounts to is WHO’s suspension as part of a sort of striking a blow at multilaterals, to appeal to the base, tying that notion that WHO is a co-conspirator with China in misleading the world and deflecting blame, creating this narrative, this story line. And this is occurring at a moment, of course, when we have over 600,000 cases and over 25,000 deaths here in the United States.
What’s the significance of this for WHO? Well, it’s, certainly, a deep threat. It’s a serious threat. It’s unconscionable. It’s the opposite, exact opposite, of what is needed at this particular moment, and it poses a threat to damage significantly WHO capacities and programs and puts a great deal of uncertainty around WHO, its politics, its finances, at a moment – exactly at the moment where we’re on the edge of this pandemic, entering a new phase in which we’re going to see higher impact in low income countries and lower-middle income countries with large, poor, vulnerable, unprotected populations, particularly in Africa and Asia where WHO remains a central player if not the central player.
So, intrinsically, these actions are increasing the risks of the response in lower income countries and lower-middle income countries. If it turns out that this suspension strikes at core programs where the U.S. is a major contributor on a voluntary basis to earmarked programs, what is that going to mean? That’s going to mean it sets back the emergency response not just to the pandemic but to the response to Ebola in DRC and other emergency responses. We know how fragile the program is in DRC in managing Ebola.
The U.S. accounts for 27 percent of polio eradication activities, 23 percent of health emergency preparedness and response, 19 percent of vaccine-preventable diseases – tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria – 17 percent of access to essential health and nutrition services. All of those, potentially, are on the block.
Will anyone fill the gap if it turns out that this becomes a permanent gap? Paradoxically, it may be that the Chinese become a bigger player. They are now accounting for only $40 million a year of support – of support to WHO. It’s not clear if they will opt in that direction. I think there will be pressures, increased pressures, on the Scandinavians and others to do this.
But keep in mind, this is a terrible time to be out seeking to fill this sort of gap of 890 – potentially, as big as 893 million (dollars) over two years when the major donors themselves like ourselves are facing economic straits. Unprecedented economic straits.
What happens now on the Hill? The administration has to engage in some level of discussion with Congress if it decides to move ahead beyond the suspension. But it has wide latitude, the administration does, for suspending and reprogramming. And in the past when there were threats to programs that mattered importantly on a bipartisan basis within Congress, in the past few years when the Trump administration has done that, the solution has been to have quiet action taken by the leadership – Republican leadership – within the House and Senate to try and create a fix. I think that’s likely to not be possible under these circumstances where the Senate and House Republican leadership have lined up very much behind, up to now, the president’s position.
A few words on WHO. WHO is very imperfect. It’s a weak institution. It’s going to need to be strengthening – strengthened. It’s not able to be very authoritative. It’s a membership or it’s an organization that serves its member states. It has to be deferential. It does not – it avoids public confrontations. It’s deferential to the United States. It’s deferential to China and to other – and to other member states. It does make mistakes. We know that. We do know that Taiwan’s observer status has been very controversial and, in retrospect, more could have been done there. We know that the pandemic – the delays on the declaration of the Public Health Emergency of International Concern and the declaration of a pandemic could have been earlier. The statement on the travel ban, the diplomatic gushing, all of these things could have been handled differently.
But the point I’m making here is that these are mistakes versus rather catastrophic decisions that were made by China itself that were hugely consequential – the six- to seven-week coverup by officials out of Hubei in late 2019, the delays after the declaration of the outbreak on December 31st, delays in sharing specimens, delays in allowing external experts to come in until mid-February. All of those things we need to keep in mind. Those are really the most significant developments. It’s far less significant what WHO was doing.
On Tedros as a leader, I want to emphasize that he is a person who’s built his career as a reformer and as a person of integrity. He’s shown a remarkable commitment and courage in journeying over 14 times into the hot zone in northeast – in the Kivus in Congo. He’s brought that particular response close to a successful conclusion. It’s very fragile. He rallied the world scientists February 11th and 12th to begin looking at the unknowns, the scientific unknowns, and to get a pathway forward on the development of vaccines and antivirals. He has opened a new dialogue with social media that’s delivered results in trying to address the infodemic.
Right now, just to close, I think that it’s – this is a very serious matter, very serious situation that we face. It is wise, I think, today to lower the temperature and to move into a quiet diplomatic phase. That still remains possible. We should do everything we can to avoid escalating and compounding the situation.
MICHAEL J. GREEN: Hi. It’s Mike Green, and I’ll follow on Steve’s excellent presentation and build on the discussion of the WHO developments and U.S.-China confrontation over the COVID-19 issue, and then end on a somewhat upbeat note, which is developments in Korea, where there was an election that we’re beginning to see results. And it’s a bit of an antidote to the bad news we’re hearing.
The Trump administration’s decision has all the faults that Steve just enumerated and is not supported outside of the United States, even among our closest friends and allies. There is a significant problem with the WHO, particularly with respect to Taiwan. The information Taiwan authorities had on human-to-human outbreak and other data was not something that they could connect – that Taipei could connect to the international system through the WHO.
The WHO has leaned very, very – it’s deferential to the big powers, but it is especially deferential to Beijing. That’s a major frustration for U.S. diplomats, Japanese and other diplomats around the world who are trying to get China – excuse me – Taiwan more involved in things like the WHO, more involved in monitoring and data sharing. And Tedros made a huge mistake when he blasted the Taiwanese for mounting a racist campaign against him a few days ago.
You know, people who follow the cyber-interference issues in Taiwan and around the world on the whole believe the Taiwanese authorities’ case that this was actually a Chinese troll farm – you know, it’s a Chinese campaign. The irony is that the Taiwanese were denying this, and then the Chinese came out and blasted Taiwan for racist slurs against Tedros that were, in fact, being generated by the Chinese government itself through social-media campaigns.
So the WHO, on Taiwan in particular, has got to change. But the way you get change is not by just withdrawing. The way you get change is by working with other countries. So, for example, Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, said that he shares or sympathizes with the concerns – and I think that’s the view in Japan and elsewhere – but that, as Steve said, we need the WHO, and for all the reasons Steve said. And so unilaterally pulling out smacks, as Steve was suggesting, of politics rather than actually trying to improve the performance of the WHO or support Taiwan.
I think the political incentives are pretty clear if you’ve seen the initial campaign ad that the Trump campaign put together against Joe Biden on China. The Harris poll that was published by The Washington Post last week shows a pretty clear deterioration in the American public’s views towards China. The Trump campaign is going to use this. They think Joe Biden is the most vulnerable of all the candidates who ran on the democratic side on China policy because, as vice president, he was essentially involved in engagement with Xi Jinping.
The other driver behind this is the national security experts in the administration who have been primarily responding to the Chinese stance on COVID-19 as a propaganda war, as an information war. And they have been reaching out to experts and to allies trying to get them focused on how to counter Chinese propaganda. And so there are, you know, drivers for this as well. There’s a cell, it’s reported – and I think credibly so – inside the administration to counter Chinese propaganda. There is no cell to work on cooperative responses to the virus with U.S. allies.
So there are two problems with this. One is, you know, the politics may change. It is not the first time that China has been a card in U.S. elections. I worked on the 2012 campaign of Mitt Romney. Governor Romney took some shots at China. It seemed to play well nationally. But then I remember the pollsters came back in the fall of 2012 and said we’ve got to stop the China bashing, because when they did more focused polling in places like Ohio, they found that it played extremely badly with farmers, especially soybean farmers who needed to export to China. So I’m not sure that this political campaign against Biden on China and using the WHO as part of that necessarily is going to be so useful for the administration going forward.
The other thing is that, if the point is to compete with China and avoid China winning propaganda wars, you do that by working with allies and like-minded states to push for reform of the WHO. That would be the next logical step. I’ve spoken with senior diplomats and officials from Japan, Australia, and other countries since this happened, and they are extremely frustrated that when they talk to the administration they’re being asked to help line up against Chinese propaganda. What they want to hear is how can we diplomatically work to get the WHO to reform in ways that would make it more effective, more fair to Taiwan, and so on and so forth. And they’re not getting any of that. It’s what Steve is asking for, and it’s clearly what allies who share some of the concerns about the WHO and Chinese propaganda think is how you win. If you’re in a competition, you don’t win by retreating from the field and saying you’re not going to play. You win by reforming, by building institutions, by providing public goods. That’s what our best friends – Australia, Japan, Canada, and others – would like to see us do, and what I think Steve is rightly pointing to as where we should go with this.
Overall, I have a piece in today’s Foreign Affairs with Evan Medeiros, my colleague at Georgetown University, which basically argues – and I think every day has proven this more to the case – that China is not winning some great propaganda offensive. The leaders in Australia, Japan, and the EU are not rising up to say China’s doing a great job. It’s coming from smaller countries that had already cast their lot with China around Belt and Road and other issues, either because they needed the infrastructure investment or because they were authoritarian systems –Hungary, Serbia, and elsewhere – that wanted a card to play against the larger democratic neighbors in Europe that they were frustrated with. So I don’t think that – I think the administration in some ways is probably overreacting to China’s propaganda war, and this WHO decision in part reflects that.
I would say, though, that COVID-19 has not suddenly led to an enthusiastic outburst of cooperation in Beijing. The Chinese sent their new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, through the Miyako Strait in Japan, threatening Taiwan this past week. The Chinese coast guard ships rammed and sank a Vietnamese ship in the South China Sea. And North Korea continues to test shorter- and intermediate-range missiles, and Beijing is not continuing to put pressure on them.
So the underlying strategic challenges with China are there, but the fight we should be having is not over the propaganda on COVID-19. It’s how do we align with allies and partners to deal with the China problem? And this WHO decision is a sort of symbol of how not to do it.
Last quick word on Korea, National Assembly elections in Korea might have gone against the ruling party of President Moon Jae-in. But he, at least according to exit polls that are out, did quite well. He’s likely to have a solid majority. His public opinion, and the Korean economy was struggling before COVID, is at a 17-month high. And there was almost 70 percent turnout in the elections, which is the highest in decades for South Korea. The Koreans have experiences with MERS and, before that, SARS and avian influenza. But they’ve also introduced – and Victor Cha, our colleague, has a piece in Foreign Affairs on this today as well – they’ve also introduced apps and the kind of digital tracing that will allow them to reopen in part.
And I just – Steve is more the expert in this – but I think it’s interesting to point out where Korea’s had success, it might have some examples for us. And very importantly, it completely undercuts Beijing’s argument that authoritarian systems do better. The most successful countries have been democracies like Korea and New Zealand. And so Korea has helped us out and we ought to take a closer look. And I’ll end with that. Thank you.
HEATHER A. CONLEY: And this is Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program. I think as we’ve been rightly focusing on the extraordinary devastating that the coronavirus has dealt to Italy, Spain, increasingly France and the U.K., I’m going to spend a little time on looking at Europe’s periphery, and particularly the outbreak of COVID in Russia and in Turkey.
We’ve certainly seen a lot of interaction between President Trump and President Putin on phone calls over the last few days and weeks. A good deal of that activity was focused both on the price of oil and getting negotiations back on reducing global oil supply, but also humanitarian assistance, which was certainly the symbol of that, with the Russian aircraft that touched down in New York with humanitarian supplies that, in part, were provided by Russian companies that had been sanctioned by the United States.
So I think certainly what we’re seeing at the U.S.-Russian bilateral level is an attempt by President Putin to reset this relationship with President Trump through a multitude of both the humanitarian dimensions, the energy price issue, and now certainly looking towards potentially the U.N. Security Council coming together for some type of a ceasefire – global ceasefire effort that French President Macron has been trying to negotiate.
In part, Russia really – and certainly President Putin himself has not been very focused on COVID, has been largely out of sight, has left this to his technocratic prime minister, increasingly falling on the mayor of Moscow. Four oblast governors have been fired because of – or, said they would resign because of lack of focus in curtailing outbreaks. But clearly what we’ve seen, and the Chinese have picked up on this, the COVID-19 outbreak in Russia is becoming increasingly serious. President Putin has had to come out more forcefully to show that they are doing more to support the economy, which has been really hit by the price of oil, but increasingly straining the Russian health care system.
So this has clearly disrupted President Putin’s plans, first and foremost, to hold a referendum on April the 22nd, which was supposed to be sort of a popular mandate for his – for changes to the Russian constitution, which would enable him to remain in power till 2036. It is very likely to disrupt the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, V-E Day, which the Russians celebrate on May the 9th. It was supposed to be a major event in Moscow. Again, officials haven’t cancelled it yet, but it’s very, very unlikely that should happen. So watching the political, the internal economic and political dynamics within Russia for the pandemic is something certainly to watch very carefully.
Turkey is another state which increasingly – has seen a really significant uptick in cases. An economy that was struggling before the pandemic, and some real challenges, I think, for Turkey to manage through this crisis. Stephanie may want to speak a little bit on the economic side of this. Something certainly to watch, particularly as Turkey is so important to Europe to maintain a strong front on their migration – the EU-Turkey migration deal. So Europe’s periphery right now looks to be that new epicenter for the coronavirus.
Two other thoughts. Last week on Friday we had this major breakthrough of European Union finance ministers of a 540-billion-euro package – financial package – which fell short in the Italian and
Spanish view because that package did not have any instrument that would begin to mutualize debt between the 19 eurozone members. Ministers are going to go back to that issue at some point. That fight is not over between the northern creditor countries and the southern debt countries; in fact, looking at the IMF warnings, we’re going to see likely Italian debt-to-GDP ratios, which are now about 135 percent, to go up to probably 150, 155 percent. This will also impact debt levels in Spain and in Greece and elsewhere. We’re going to be revisiting this question not now, but in six months. And those deep, deep fracture lines between north and south are certainly going to come back to the fore.
And I’ll just end on two final notes. We’re continuing to watch Europe really struggle with coordinating how to ease themselves out of the lockdown. We have several EU countries – Denmark, Austria, even Spain – emerging from the lockdown – (audio break) – 23rd with some openings, and how that will be managed will again be another sensitive question about EU coordination.
And then finally, just to pick up on Mike’s theme on the Korean elections, on May the 10th Poland will have presidential elections. This is going to be very controversial if the government proceeds with the election, which it proposes to do, in the middle of a lockdown. So democracy is going to be certainly challenged moving forward, regional elections and then the Polish presidential election, and we’ll have to see how legitimate that election is, if it is held, in the eyes of Polish citizens.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Stephanie.
STEPHANIE SEGAL: Thanks, Heather. This is Stephanie Segal, the Simon Chair in Political Economy.
Folks that have participated in these calls in the past know that we’ve been covering the economic impacts of the crisis in the U.S. and also globally, as well as the related policy responses. This week has certainly seen a lot of news flow, in particular on the multilateral response front. We have the spring meetings of the IMF and the World Bank that are taking place virtually this week, and we had just today a G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting.
And I would say in contrast to previous G-meetings since this crisis began, the G-20 did come through today with some concrete actions. Clearly, there’s a sense that more will be needed ahead. But I do think it’s significant that there was, in fact, something in the way of deliverables with today’s communique.
I’d like to just focus on what was agreed on debt relief. As Heather mentioned in her comments about Europe and Italy in particular, debt and increasing debt burdens I think is going to be one of the themes that remains with us related to the crisis well after the virus itself recedes. What was agreed today by the G-20 was G-20 support for – I’m quoting here – “a timebound suspension of debt-service payments for the poorest countries that request it.” In a first for me at least in looking at these communiques, it actually included a common term sheet that was attached as an annex to the communique which commits all bilateral official creditors to participate consistent with their national laws and internal procedures. So a bit of a caveat there. There’s a specific call in addition to bilateral official creditors that multilateral development banks, as well as private creditors, were to participate in the initiative on comparable terms. So the G-20, obviously, can’t commit the MDBs nor private creditors to participate, but there’s an explicit call for that participation. And it’s worth noting that the IMF earlier this week, on Monday, their board actually agreed to provide that debt-service relief through the end of this year.
A few points as to why I think this is more significant than at least looking at the Twitter feeds would necessarily suggest. First off, we’ve talked about in past calls the fact that low-income countries in particular need fiscal space to prioritize their health spending. Advanced economies have been in a position of not really facing fiscal constraints and having the ability to ramp up their fiscal response to finance their health response. Low-income countries have not necessarily had that ability. And there’s actually a condition to receive this debt relief that any benefiting country would actually be required to increase social health or economic spending. So that’s kind of first and foremost the benefit of what was announced today.
I also think it’s significant that the G-20 actually agreed to something. And there’s been a lot of talk about the lack of multilateral responses to the crisis. In this case, they did agree to something. And it’s noteworthy in particular because not all G-20 countries are impacted the same way by a suspension in debt service to low-income countries.
A number of the advanced economies, the U.S. and Europe, have been providing – to the extent they provide assistance to low-income countries, a lot of that in the past 10 years or so has been on a grant basis. So they don’t really have debt exposures to the same extent that a number of the newer official creditors do. So not everybody’s interests here are aligned, but they were able to forge this agreement.
And for folks following issues related to debt – and China in particular will know that the issue of indebtedness and the provision of credit by China to a number of low-income countries has been a longstanding issue. So just agreement on that front, I think, is significant.
One of the other conditions here as well is a commitment to boost transparency. So to qualify for this debt relief, countries must disclose all public-sector debts. The international financial institutions will provide technical assistance to this end. And so I think being able to boost transparency as part of this initiative is also important.
And as I mentioned before, while the commitment itself is limited to official bilateral creditors, the inclusion of not just the multilateral development banks but also efforts to bring private creditors into this on comparable terms is meaningful. And it’s meaningful – and I’ll go back to the earlier comment that there’s a sense that more will be needed. So much of where we go from here is dependent on, as we said in the past, kind of the health response and when we’re able to start to normalize. And that is still very much an unknown.
But the answer to that question will then indicate whether this is sufficient to just provide relief to the poorest countries or if we’re in for a much longer protracted crisis facing emerging markets in particular, whether there’s going to be the need for additional assistance. At a minimum, what we have today is something that has the potential to then be built on if it looks like we’re in for a much more protracted crisis.
So I’ll stop there, and happy to take any questions.
MR. DIAMOND: Yeah, I think we can open up for questions now.
(Gives queueing instructions.)
One moment, please, for our first question. And we go to the line of George Condon from National Journal. Please ask your question.
Q: Great. Thanks for doing the call.
In a sense, I’m following on Stephanie. But I want to take a broader look. Back on March 25th, when we did this call, Steve talked about – the question was about whether or not the U.S. was providing multilateral or international leadership, as you’d expected in a pandemic. And Steve then said that the world was terribly fragmented with no real promising diplomatic initiative. And Heather described what we she said was a lot of national responses, but a real vacuum of U.S. leadership. In the three weeks since that call, has the situation changed? Is the U.S. stepping into any kind of leadership role? Or are we still basically in national responses?
MS. SEGAL: It’s Stephanie. I can start maybe on the economic side, and then if anybody else has additional views from their perspective.
I would actually go back even prior to the last three weeks. I’m losing track of the timeline here, but I think the Federal Reserve was actually very quick to move, but it moved, in part, with assistance, fiscal support that was included in the CARES Act. But two pieces in particular that were actually important to then support the international economy was the provision of the central bank swap lines in reinstating what had been introduced during the financial crisis, then the introduction of a new facility of a purchase facility that basically is available to any country that holds U.S. treasuries. So expanding the ability of the Fed to provide dollar liquidity. So I think in those two instances there was a demonstration of leadership but coming more from the Fed and monetary authorities than the administration itself.
And today’s announcement, again, I know that there’s been some criticism of what the U.S. did not support in particular SDR allocations. But I think there are pieces there as far as supporting facility reform and, as I mentioned before, the debt piece that suggests that at least in the finance channel there is a much more cooperative approach. And I would also mention – you know, Steve had focused on the WHO. It is interesting to me, as you look at that, the communique, that finance ministers are continuing to defer to the WHO for the health response. And there’s actually a reference in the action plan to follow the leadership of the WHO. So at a minimum it’s not obstruction as it is actually trying to find a cooperative multilateral approach.
MR. GREEN: It’s Mike. I would – I would say that the Fed and Treasury Department and their counterparts are doing what you would normally expect them to do. It’s a big late with the G-20 announcement Stephanie described, but it’s something. In a crisis – in an international, transnational crisis like this, you would often see the Pentagon, in Asia the Pacific Command – or, now Indo-Pacific Command – playing a very prominent role, providing relief and so forth. You don’t see that in part because, obviously, the virus is hitting U.S. ships and militaries. And so they’re all having to pull back from those kind of humanitarian operations. And so that’s a blank slate on the whole.
And the other thing you would see in the past, whether it was SARS or avian influenza, the tsunami in 2004, would be some kind of coalitions of the willing. And it’s easiest to do this not with China, but with likeminded states. And when I was in the administration 2001-2005, I think later for the Obama administration, Clinton before that, you know, in every other crisis like this you try to demonstrate the strength of your alliances. Sometimes it was symbolic. Sometimes it was more substantive. But you’d form multilaterals. You’d form coalitions. You’d have data sharing agreements. You’d have early warning agreements.
There’s shockingly little of that right now, which is – you know, whether you’re a liberal idealist and believe the U.N. and international institutions like the WHO have got to be reinforced, or you’re more of a hard-headed realist and you think we have to compete to stop China from, you know, hurting our alliances, limiting our influence, engaging in revisionist, hegemonic behavior – whichever side of that debate you’re on, now is the time when you work with like-minded states to get things done.
And so to answer your question, except for the finance and Fed side, much of which we don’t see, and perhaps corporate-to-corporate, university-to-university, civil society, at a national level, still stunningly little compared to previous crises the U.S. has found itself in – and to our detriment, both in terms of our diplomatic and our basic health interests.
MR. MORRISON: This is Steve Morrison. To George’s question and following on Stephanie and Mike, the – when you look at the countries that – well, first of all, if you look at what lies in front of us in terms of low income and lower-middle income countries, we’re looking at staggering consequences both on the impact of the virus once it arrives and spreads to hugely vulnerable populations that are – that have few protections, and then economic impacts that are likely to be far worse than what we’re experiencing in the United States and in Europe.
And so we have the threat of reversal of developmental gains over the last 25 years and we have the threat of much higher loss of life under certain circumstances and overwhelming of health systems. And when you set that against what we see now today three weeks later, it’s a complete void diplomatically. The U.S., the U.K., and Europe are fractured and self-absorbed and have shown very, very little, if any, coalescence and leadership in this period. That’s my first point.
Second point is, you know, the WHO – the decision by Trump to trash WHO for domestic electoral purposes drew some very tepid resistance from Secretary Pompeo, some implicit resistance from Dr. Fauci, who praised – openly praised the integrity and leadership of Dr. Tedros.
But that, clearly, didn’t matter much in the calculations. And what we’ve seen in the attack upon WHO was a pretty radical regression of U.S. leadership with respect to this crisis, and, you know, we’re moving in the wrong direction, not in the right direction. So I would say in the three weeks that – since we last gathered it’s become much more starkly clear the problems that we face.
One last point is that USAID has somewhere in the order of $500 million to begin to allocate, which is good news. The folks inside the agency are competent and focused and working hard. But they, I think, operate like their counterparts at CDC, who also have a very important role to play. They operate very quietly. They’re not advertising what they’re up to and there’s a reason for that, and that reason is they don’t want to attract too much attention to themselves.
So there – we do have assets. We do have programs that are meaningful and going to make a contribution. But they’re not going to get a big boost of leadership coming out of the White House, and we’re also going to face the difficulty of access and capacity in these low income countries where these programs are going to be concentrated. Our embassies are now operating at about half strength and protection of personnel has become a key consideration. Travel in and out has become highly problematic. And so we face a dilemma where we know that there’s critical needs, both cash and inputs and personnel and expertise. How we actually get them onsite and deploy them effectively and safely we have not yet answered that particular question.
MS. CONLEY: George, this is Heather. Very finally, still stand by the March 25th analysis. In fact, there was so much nationalistic approach to the problem it actually frightened the European Union and sort of jolted them back into attempts at a more coordinated framework, whether that was the humanitarian aid or, you know, thinking through the more significant fiscal and economic measures.
I think what will come out of this crisis, the countries that come out of this intact or can manage through it the best that they can they’re the ones that had a stronger economic cushion going in, sort of like Germany, that has a number of hospital beds and perhaps is going to come through this less scathed than other countries. So I think they are going to have to then make a determination how much they are going to share of their national predisposition for economic health or how much they’re going to retain nationally. And that in some ways is the divide between Northern and Southern Europe on those debt instruments. It’s about protecting the sovereign, the national, or sharing the burden or sharing the debt. And that will ultimately – you know, that question may or may not play out over time.
OPERATOR: Does that answer your question, Mr. Condon?
Q: Yes. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
And next we’ll go to the question line of Mr. Jeff Seldin from Voice of America. Please ask your question.
Q: Hi. Can you hear me?
MR. MORRISON: Yes.
Q: Terrific. Thank you.
Two quick questions, if I may. First, as Russia is getting hit harder and harder by the coronavirus pandemic, have you noticed a change in its information operations the way it’s promoting disinformation and narratives online? That’s my first question.
And my second question – this came up a little bit earlier at the virtual news conference that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg did – but should the U.S./NATO also perhaps – does it need to be making combatting infectious diseases, the spread of pandemics, a bigger part of the National Defense Strategy or of, you know, if you go more wider, NATO’s defense strategy? And if so, how? What type of resources need to be put in there so that it can be done effectively?
MS. CONLEY: Thanks so much for your question. I think on the Russia end of it, we are seeing certainly a continuation of disinformation (exercises ?), sowing confusion, demonstrating that democratic Western institutions are not fit for purpose when it comes to responding to the pandemic. And that externally hasn’t changed.
What is going to be interesting, as the – as the picture certainly does look much more stark and much more difficult for Russia, particularly both in the urban areas but we’re starting to also see this push out even in the – in the more rural areas, that the provision of Russian humanitarian assistance, whether that was to Italy or to the United States, that there’s an impact of real scarcity which we are seeing, there will be within Russia and their healthcare system. Will that very advertised Russian humanitarian assistance, will that lead to, you know, (backsliding ?) domestically, and will the Russians’ internal communication have to change? I think we’re going to see a lot of – (inaudible) – obviously, domestically while trying to amplify the external weaknesses. In part, the Russian humanitarian aid to Italy and the U.S. I believe was an attempt to try to get relief and, you know, trying to get sanctions lifted. We’ll see if there’s any movement on that front. But I’m not seeing real changes right now.
On NATO, the defense ministers have a virtual meeting, you’re absolutely right, on Thursday. The foreign ministers met the other week. NATO has been actually doing a great job doing a lot of coordination, sending relief supplies, really that coordinating function.
I don’t – you know, whether the national defense planning process in the future will constitute, you know, stockpiling of PPE and things like that, again, that’s going to be a national competency. Certainly, NATO can make some recommendations, and certainly on force-protection measures. But I tend to think NATO’s going to stay much more on the coordination front, which is where it excels, helping countries if needed. But I don’t see pandemic response per se being part of a NATO core task, although foreign ministers were certainly talking about broadening the definition of security to be health security – (inaudible). But I don’t see that right now.
MR. DIAMOND: Yeah, I think – does anybody else want to add onto that?
OK. Well, I think if there are no further questions – it looks like there aren’t any more – I think we can end the call here. We’ve coming onto an hour, anyway. We’ll be sure to send out a transcript and it will also be posted on our website. And we’re also happy to set up any one-on-one interviews with our experts if you’d like to reach out to us directly. Thanks again for calling in today, and also thanks to our experts for joining us. Thank you.