Senate Agreed to $10 Billion COVID Package, With No Money for Global Response

On April 4, the Senate agreed to a $10 billion package to fund the Biden administration’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The negotiators heralded it as a major success, and the administration announced that it would allow vital COVID services to continue.

Yet, as with so much else that passes for “success” in this fractured and fractious political environment, the bill was in fact a stunning failure — in this case, representing a disaster for the basic principles of global pandemic response.

President Biden had initially requested over $22 billion in funding — for ongoing testing and vaccines, for medical research, and, crucially, for overseas aid, to help poorer countries ramp up their testing and vaccine regimens. In the original proposal, $5 billion was dedicated to the international response.

Since 2020, the pandemic has raged in poorer countries such as India, but the exact scale of its carnage has often been underplayed by those countries’ governments. India, for example, claims that it has lost about 500,000 citizens to the disease. This week, however, the World Health Organization estimated that the true number was closer to 4 million. Without accurate public health data, it becomes ever harder to tailor appropriate responses to the pandemic in those countries; and without effective interventions, the risk of new, potentially more lethal variants emerging, grows by the day.

Most Americans, and the vast majority of elderly Americans, have had at least two shots against COVID, with many having also received their boosters (and many of those who aren’t vaccinated have made a conscious choice not to be, despite the widespread availability of free vaccines). By contrast, in poorer nations, vaccination rates remain perilously low, often not by choice. By the start of 2022, only about 10 percent of Africans had both the original course of vaccines and the booster shots. In many countries, such as Mali and South Sudan, Tanzania and Cameroon, only about 1 in 20 had received even their first vaccine dose. According to The New York Times global tracker, in Uganda, only 1 in 1,000 individuals have received boosters. Only 3 percent of Pakistanis have received their boosters. Only 2.2 percent of Georgians have been boosted. And the list goes on.

These are abysmal numbers, and they point to the ongoing need for massive international investments and assistance in providing vaccines to poor countries, and then in helping those countries actually get shots into arms.

Wealthy countries, which invested huge sums in mRNA vaccines, have managed to largely kick-start their economies again, and return life to relative normalcy for residents after months of lockdowns, and keep their health systems afloat even during recent surges. However, poorer countries risk ongoing health system inundation with each new surge. The U.S., U.K., and other affluent, powerful nations are now acting as if the pandemic is largely over; yet for poorer nations, largely unvaccinated nearly 30 months into the public health crisis, it is possible that the worst days of the outbreak are still to come.

At the end of the Senate negotiations, in which Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) served as the GOP negotiator, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer trumpeted a deal that made available far less than half the amount initially requested and contained exactly zero dollars earmarked for international COVID responses. If that’s a “success,” God only knows what a Schumer failure would look like.

For the past 15 months, the GOP, along with a handful of more conservative Democratic senators, have stymied almost every major spending initiative and policy priority of the Biden administration. And time and again, the White House and its Senate allies have caved, arguing that a little bit is better than nothing. It’s been a losing strategy politically: Witness the continual compromising around the Build Back Better Act, and the ultimate failure to secure any legislation on that front; witness the cascading series of failures to implement meaningful climate change policies. It has also been a losing strategy in terms of public opinion: Witness Biden’s collapsing poll ratings, especially among younger, more idealistic voters, and the broad sense among the voting public that the administration waffles away its political capital rather than truly doubling down and fighting for what it believes in.

What happened on April 4 is yet another example of the escalating ineffectiveness of an administration that has lost all ability to make the Senate tack its way on even the most common-sense of issues. It’s not as if $5 billion in international COVID assistance would break the U.S. economy: that’s about what the country spends on the military in two days. It’s about $268 billion less than what Elon Musk, the U.S.’s richest individual, is worth. That $5 billion could be funded by a miniscule tax increase on Musk and other super-rich Americans. It’s about 1/20 the average amount Americans spend on their pets annually. It’s less than a third of what Medicare spends on insulin each year.

If the political will were there, it’s inconceivable that funds wouldn’t have been easily found to cover international vaccine efforts. Yet political goodwill is in perilously short supply in Washington these days.

As if to prove the point that this was less to do with fiscal responsibility and more to do with political gamesmanship, a day after the much-heralded “bipartisan” agreement was reached, the GOP began pushing to tack on even more cost-cutting and anti-asylum seeker amendments, and the Senate moved further away from actually passing the deal that its own negotiators had reached only the previous day. By April 8, Schumer had accepted that the legislation wouldn’t be passed before the Senate recessed for Easter and announced that no vote would be held until at least April 25.

So much for Biden and Schumer’s vaunted negotiating skills. The story of the U.S.’s disengagement with the international COVID response efforts is a saga of failure and abandonment, pure and simple.

Every time Schumer trumpets a “bipartisan” agreement, the result is something that progressive Democrats hate and that the GOP views as simply a launch pad to further extremes. It’s past time for Schumer to actually fight for important political values and vital societal investments. If he can’t, or won’t, then he is simply whistling in the wind.