If You Could Save a Million Lives, Would You Do It?

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This article was first published in The Hill on October 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

If you had the opportunity to save a million people from preventable death, would you do it? These are people who would otherwise fall victim to the global pandemic and deep recession that most of the world is experiencing. This is not merely a rhetorical question, but one that members of the Congress will have to answer in the present.

In an interview with The Economist last month, Bill Gates stated that millions of people in developing countries would die before the COVID-19 pandemic was over. He noted, importantly, that 90 percent of the deaths would not result from the virus itself, but from “indirect” effects. These include most prominently the economic impact of the pandemic, as well as other causes such as the overwhelming of medical and public health resources, which increases fatalities from other diseases.

Gates was not exaggerating at all. It’s easy to see how this horror will materialize, if we project forward from the current situation. The World Food Program projects that the number of people facing acute hunger will nearly double this year, from 135 to 260 million. This is mainly a result of the economic impact of the pandemic: as the World Bank has noted, this is the worst global recession since the end of World War II, and the worst ever (since 1870) in terms of the number of countries pushed into recession. It creates poverty, extreme poverty and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people in developing countries.

By itself, the projected increase in acute hunger is enough to kill millions of people—disproportionately children. That’s because malnutrition increases the number of preventable deaths from other causes, including stunting and wasting, which also leave permanent damage in many millions of children who survive.

But these deaths do not have to happen. Nor do many others resulting from the increased poverty and deprivation, shortages of medicine and medical supplies, and inability to afford the steps needed to curtail the pandemic. Measures that arrest the pace of economic decline and speed recovery can save millions.

Right now, legislation has already passed the House of Representatives that would do just that. And it was included in the newly released COVID relief bill that is being negotiated between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and [then-]Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. It would require the Treasury Department, which represents our government at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to support a multi-trillion dollar relief package from the Fund. These funds are not loans and therefore will not have to be repaid. They have no conditions attached to them. And they do not cost the US government anything at all—not now, and not at any time in the future.

The IMF leadership, and almost all of the 189 member countries—including US allies such as Germany and Canada—are ready to allocate the aid that Congress is considering. The reason it hasn’t already been approved at the IMF is that the US Treasury has said no, and the US—alone—has a veto at the IMF on this matter.

Amazingly, it’s not at all clear why the Treasury is blocking this desperately needed aid. The economy and people of the US would benefit considerably from it, since US exports to the rest of the world have been hit very hard by the global recession—they fell by 64 percent in the second quarter. For an indication of what this means for employment in the US: the 2009 world recession was nowhere near as bad as this one, and it cost the US economy an estimated two million export-related jobs. So Americans stand to benefit quite a bit from an earlier recovery of the world economy.

Nor is there any reason that it should be a partisan issue, and it hasn’t become one so far. It’s true that the bill that passed the House was led by Democrats, and so is the companion bill that has been introduced in the Senate. But Sen. Jim Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma—the powerful [then-]chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee—allowed the Senate bill to be initially included as an amendment to other legislation that is certain to be approved. And a number of other Republican Senate offices have said, in private conversations, that they would support the measure if it is voted on.

One reason that this proposed aid hasn’t become a partisan fight is that there is almost no opposition to it that has been expressed in public. Virtually every economist, present or former head of state or minister, or expert who has expressed an opinion on the measure—and there have been hundreds—has been for it. More than 110 organizations, including some of the largest humanitarian groups in the US, as well as religious denominations, have also joined in. So, too, has the International Chamber of Commerce.

Of course the Congress has a lot on its plate, and is having trouble passing further relief that millions of Americans need to pay their bills and, for many, even have enough to eat. But all indications are that Congress will pass major spending bills before the end of the year, including funding to avoid a government shutdown. It would take almost no effort to include the House or Senate bill that would unblock Treasury’s hold on the IMF funding.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 infections are still growing exponentially, as the world economy shrinks—an unprecedented and deadly combination. The longer Congress postpones this decision, the more people will die.

If you could save a million lives, would you do it? That is what members of Congress should be asking themselves before they leave for recess in October.

Editors’ note: Since this article was written, although the second COVID relief bill was signed into law on December 27, the mentioned bill (H.R.6581 – Robust International Response to Pandemic Act) was not included in it, nor has any action been taken on it to date.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D in economics from the University of Michigan. He is author of the book Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy.

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