Global, Public Health

America self-isolates

July 10, 2020 |2:27 min read

Withdrawal from WHO is irresponsible

The administration has submitted its official notification of withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO), effective July 6, 2021.

Especially during a pandemic, this is an irresponsible decision. We need the world, and the world needs us. We can quibble about how much money we provide WHO – maybe – or about particular decisions WHO makes, but we should have a seat at the table when major global health issues are being debated. If there is one lesson COVID-19 should have taught us, it is that we cannot build walls to keep out bad bugs (SARS-CoV-2, for example). Isolating ourselves is magical thinking that we are in control of the world; we are not. We will have far less opportunity to influence the world as we withdraw and isolate ourselves.

Over the course of our history, it has been written that the U.S. has moved between isolationism and global engagement. It was easier to imagine the U.S. as the universe before air travel became common, and the internet erased borders between countries. In the 1920s and 1930s, until Pearl Harbor, isolationists thought America should not intervene in foreign affairs and should be focused on domestic issues to improve American people’s lives. Their doctrine can be summed up by Lindbergh’s motto “America First.” America First sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Today, we must operate as global citizens and as global health citizens. We all are in this together, and that’s a SARS-CoV-2 lesson, too. The only way to be part of meaningful global problem solving is to be at the table to influence outcomes and to learn from and understand others’ viewpoints. When I led a division at the National Cancer Institute, I learned a lot about global health diplomacy through discussions and observation. One of those lessons was the importance of talking with global leaders, engaging in civil conversations about options, listening to people with other viewpoints, sharing data and influencing how, and on what, funds get spent. That’s how policies get made. If we are not at the table, our knowledge, perspectives and policy preferences do not get aired. We lose the opportunity to persuade and influence, and we forfeit the chance to affect decisions made by WHO that have huge implications for global health.

Over 244 years of U.S. existence, isolation has never been the best policy, and it is not the right strategy now. Throughout history, isolationism has shown itself to be failed policy. America is at her strongest when most engaged, collaborative and innovative. Retreat is not a viable or mature solution and only serves to cut us off from the rest of the world at a time when meaningful and life-changing research is going on every day in our country. Taking our ball and going home may only lengthen the suffering and further delay treatments and vaccines, adding unnecessarily to the worldwide death toll. This is a wrongheaded decision that will have a tragic human toll.

We concur with the position shared by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) that “ASPPH and the American academic public health community will continue to engage with the WHO, regardless of the official membership status of the United States. Our students, faculty, and staff will continue to strive to improve health for everyone, everywhere.”

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.