U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday appealed to world leaders to step up efforts to respond to the next phase in the global pandemic, as the United States itself reaches a grim COVID-19 point – without the billions of dollars in emergency funding Biden has asked of Congress.
“Today, we mark a tragic milestone here in the United States: one million COVID deaths,” Biden said in a pre-recorded message Thursday morning to attendees of the second U.S-led virtual COVID summit, co-hosted by Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal.
The U.S. has recorded about 82 million COVID cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Estimates of the total deaths vary, but as of Thursday Johns Hopkins University data said 999,009 deaths have been recorded.
New U.S. cases and hospitalizations have been rising in recent weeks, but the number of deaths has stayed relatively low, at around 300 per day, down from more than 3,000 per day back in February.
Biden added, “Around the world, many more millions have died. Millions of children have been orphaned, with thousands still dying every day. Now is the time for us to act. All of us together. We all must do more, must honor those we have lost by doing everything we can to prevent as many deaths as possible.”
The U.S. comes to this gathering without a commitment from Congress for the $5 billion in global funding that Biden has asked for: a fact that Germany’s leader seemed to highlight in his introductory comments.
“So what is needed?” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said. “The short answer is ‘money.’”
Money, indeed, is the main focus of this gathering of leaders. Scholz pledged $885 million dollars to global COVID efforts on Thursday. Other wealthy nations announced new commitments, with Italy pledging $208 million to the global Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator; South Korea pledging $300 million to that initiative; and South Africa pledging to donate 5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 10 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to other African nations.
Vice President Kamala Harris appealed to the U.S. Congress to approve the White House’s funding requests.
“We have called upon the United States Congress for $22.5 billion dollars in additional emergency funding to battle COVID,” she said. “Five billion dollars of that would be dedicated to continue our leadership and helping to save lives around the world. We will continue to advocate for these life-saving resources as part of our global commitment.”
Co-host President Macky Sall of Senegal said Africa has so far managed to avoid the dire predictions at the beginning of the pandemic, because of strong continental leadership.
“In Africa, we have been able to remain resilient in the face of COVID-19 with relatively few positive cases and deaths compared to the rest of the world, whereas the worst was feared,” he said. “Our countries have adopted response strategies, each within their means. We have also coordinated our ongoing efforts at the continental level under the leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa with the support of the African Union Commission and Africa CDC,” referring to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health experts, however, have questioned whether Africa’s true death toll has been seriously underreported. “The numbers are so staggeringly different that arguments about demographic or health advantages are no longer plausible in explaining the gap,” write demographic and health experts Toshido Kaneda and Lori Ashford of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau. “Rather, COVID-19 cases and deaths in sub-Saharan Africa appear to be vastly undercounted.”
What the US is doing – and what it isn’t
Biden said that the U.S. is continuing to fight the pandemic by sharing U.S government-developed COVID-19 technologies with the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool. And, he said, the U.S. will start a pilot program with the Global Fund to expand access to rapid testing and antiviral treatments.
A senior administration official told reporters on the eve of the summit that the U.S. has a three-point plan: first, to prevent complacency as new variants continue to emerge; second, to prevent deaths by focusing on the most vulnerable; and third, to lay the groundwork to prevent future pandemics.
The White House says it’s realistic about its main constraint.
“I think we don’t want to sugarcoat it, that we need more money,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “We don’t have a plan B here.”
She urged Congress to approve the funding, “because we’re going to exhaust our treatment supply, we’ll lose out to other countries on promising new treatments, we’ll lose our place in line for America to order new COVID vaccines, we’ll be unable to maintain our supply of COVID tests, and our effort to get — help lower-income countries get COVID vaccines into arms will stall, which is especially relevant given the international summit we’re hosting.”
Absent from the summit, however, were two major vaccine developers – China and Russia.
Russia attended the previous summit, in September; China has yet to attend the event. VOA asked a senior White House official why those two nations were not included.
“In terms of whether Russia was invited: no, we did not extend a commitment ask to them,” he said. “And with other countries, we have extended and asked for a financial policy commitment.” He added, “We’re finding amongst the countries, the companies, the philanthropies and the nonprofits that have committed to this effort that we’ve mobilized $3.1 billion dollars of financing towards the global fight. So it’s clear other countries are stepping up to do their part.”
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivered his organization’s four requests to summit attendees:
“First, we call for a policy commitment to boost vaccination, testing and treatment in countries,” he said. “Second, we call for investment in local production. Third, we call for financial commitments to fully fund the ACT accelerator and WHO strategic preparedness readiness and response plan. And fourth, we call for political commitment to support the financial intermediary fund and the new architecture for global health security.”
South Africa’s president warned that the real goal should be global, equitable action.
“The threat of new waves and the emergence of new variants is ever present,” Ramaphosa said. “Because COVID-19 is not over yet.”
Chris Hannas contributed to this report.