Trump administration cripples Latin America’s ability to fight COVID-19 | Opinion

Mark L. Schneider
·4 min read

The coronavirus pandemic epicenter, in six months, has traveled from China to Italy, and Europe, then to the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. With far weaker health facilities, coronavirus deaths averaged more than 2,000 each day last week in Latin America and the Caribbean — half of all deaths worldwide and nearly three times the rate in the United States during that same time period.

Yet, in another example of misguided foreign policy, the Trump administration is hurting, rather than helping, the countries of the Americas respond to the health, economic and political impact of the coronavirus. A House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday is targeted directly at the administration’s failure to help the region.

The public-health disaster already has had its own economic echo, with the United Nations predicting widespread hunger and the worst downturn since the Great Depression:

  • The Trump administration has suspended funding for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the regional organization that we helped establish more than a century ago to protect the health of the hemisphere, including our own. The United States now is $110 million in arrears, according to congressional lawmakers and a range of Latin America-focused NGOs.

  • PAHO effectively is the equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for every country in Latin America, providing them critical technical support. Many have inadequate intensive-care units, limited laboratory diagnostic capacity and scant personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers dealing with COVID-19.

  • PAHO also is the regional office of the Americas for the World Health Organization (WHO), so it is hurt a second time by the administration’s funding cuts. Information-sharing across borders on what works to halt the pandemic, treat its victims and find a vaccine is critical.

  • The United States had not contributed a cent through mid-June to PAHO’s initial appeal for $94.8 million in special coronavirus funding. Canada, Japan, the EU and individual European nations have donated about half. Now PAHO’s appeal is up to $200 million for 2020. The needs represent what the countries and PAHO determined are lacking in PPE, ventilators, laboratories, training for contact tracing and every other urgent health response.

  • Trump’s decision to cut off PAHO also will add to the costs of responding to COVID-19 and to the clouds of corruption that hover over large-scale procurement. Already more than a dozen regional government officials have been indicted for getting kickbacks from health suppliers and pharmaceutical companies. PAHO’s revolving fund lets it purchase supplies and equipment in bulk and at cost, avoiding fraught local procurement.

  • Even with constant evidence of the rising numbers of cases, deportations of migrants, some asymptomatic, to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti goes on. The promised laboratory testing of migrants to be sure that they are not carrying the disease is flagrantly inadequate.

  • The Trump administration has falsely accused PAHO of not fully disclosing its role in a totally unrelated program, “Maís Medicos” involving Cuban doctors (along with other nations) providing health in remote regions of Brazil, falsely implying a lack of auditing. In fact, each year since 2012 ,when the Brazilian government requested PAHO’s help in setting up the program, annual audits, from the Spanish — and now United Kingdom’s — controllers general (PAHO’s outside auditors), and narrative reports were provided to PAHO governing bodies, including the United States. To appease our country, PAHO also announced it will provide its executive committee with information prior to approval of future voluntarily funded projects like Maís Medicos.

The administration seems blind to PAHO’s remarkable success in leading campaigns to eliminate smallpox, measles and polio, despite wars and disasters, not to mention helping contain Zika, dengue and malaria. In 1985, I played a small role at PAHO, along with UNICEF, in getting El Salvador’s President Napoleon Duarte and the FMLN guerrillas — reached through the Catholic Church — to declare a ceasefire in the country’s civil conflict for three consecutive weekends each year to permit polio vaccination to take place. In 1994, the Americas became the first region in the world to certify that polio had been eradicated.

The same use of “Health as a Bridge for Peace” saw PAHO once more play a key role a few weeks ago in Venezuela enabling National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and the Maduro regime to reach agreement on an independent, PAHO-coordinated coronavirus response, which the United States should help finance.

Cutting off funding to PAHO, deporting migrants with coronavirus, and reprogramming or delaying three quarters of appropriated development funds for Central America over the past four years have had consequences. Health centers and health workers have fewer resources and that means more coronavirus infections and more deaths. It is that simple.

Mark L. Schneider is senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former director of the U.S. Peace Corps, former head of Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development and former head of strategic planning at the Pan American Health Organization.