Pandemics as rapid and devastating as the current Ebola outbreak, although rare, serve as an important reminder of the critical security and humanitarian work the U.S. does around the world and here at home — not with drones and air bases, but with medical tents and syringes.
It is my hope at times such as these that, despite fear-inducing headlines and finger-pointing politics, U.S. foreign aid will find a moment of rare appreciation, and support. U.S. foreign assistance provides indispensable global leadership concerning both emergency and on-going global health needs. This work is instrumental in saving millions of lives around the world and protecting ourselves here at home.
At just one fifth of 1 percent of the entire federal budget, U.S. global health funding is a tiny portion of government spending, but the American government nevertheless remains the world’s single largest development donor. To put it in perspective, though the U.S. ranks 21st in giving — Norway spends six times as much in terms of percentage of GDP for example — the relative size of the American economy means that the money devoted by Congress to international aid and development is of overwhelming importance to long-term global progress across a range of fields — including what we now know to be indispensably important health infrastructure.
I note this because funding is being channeled into Ebola care and containment, as it should be. The House Committees on Foreign Affairs, and Energy and Commerce, each met twice; there’s been an Executive Session of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. But as Ebola swallows up vast resources and destroys fragile communities, stories are emerging of patients dying of malaria or childbirth because local clinics and hospitals — either swamped by Ebola patients or closed — are no longer able to care for them. Sierra Leone’s Minister of Agriculture says farms have been abandoned, and whole villages wiped out. Kanayo Nwanze, president of the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development, said the Ebola epidemic is strangling regional trade and could “lead to a hunger crisis of epic proportions for West Africa.”
Emergency response organizations are heroes, often putting themselves at personal risk. But U.S foreign aid also supports the thousands who work quietly, out of the headlines. Over the long term they strengthen whole health-care systems so that in the future, outbreaks need not become epidemics, and epidemics, should they occur, need not become pandemics because structures intended to contain them collapse due to problems such as under-funding and lack of staff and training. As well as treating the ill, health and development organizations build healthy populations served by functioning clinics and trained staff, and communities are educated about nutrition, sanitation, medical interventions, agriculture and so much more—all of which are essential to halting the spread of diseases, including Ebola.
The tragedy of Ebola is going to be made all the worse if we do not continue to vigorously support all global health, not just in the countries hit by the disease, but in the dozens of countries where foreign aid is making unprecedented advancements in global health and development. According to recent UNICEF data, as many as 6.3 million fewer children under five will die this year than in 1990 and people are getting out of poverty faster. These hard-won gains must not be lost, nor should forward momentum be curtailed. Seventeen thousand children still die every day, from mostly preventable diseases. That is another kind of pandemic. Our work is going in the right direction, but it is not complete.
I hope in all the talk and analysis, Congress understands that U.S. investment in global health is an investment in American health. Fear won’t save lives. It is impossible to close off a border to a disease. When a multitude of diseases are a plane ride away, containing them where they begin is the priority. If we want to prevent Ebola and other diseases such as polio, cholera, tuberculosis, deadly flu strains, measles and malaria from crossing U.S. borders, the way to do that in today’s global economy is to deal with them at the source.
A supplemental funding request for Ebola may be essential to continue global health work that saves lives and protects us here at home. We cannot rob Peter to pay Paul. If funding is taken from money allocated for global health work, children and families in developing countries are going to suffer and die. Much-needed health care development will be halted. As a result, when we face the next pandemic, it may be even harder to stop.
Ebola will undoubtedly take too many more lives. Times of crisis are a sound reminder of the life-saving value of every dollar “we the people” invest in global health — for all God’s children.
Bruce Wilkinson is the president and CEO of Catholic Medical Mission Board, and previously served as regional vice president-Southern Africa, for World Vision International.