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Mark Suzman is the CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Photo from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Archives)

CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Mark Suzman spoke about the world’s disjointed response to the COVID-19 pandemic with interviewer Helene Cooper, a Pentagon correspondent at The New York Times, at a virtual event hosted by the Perry World House. 

Suzman's Tuesday afternoon talk was the first in a three-day event series hosted by PWH to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, titled “The UN at 75: Coronavirus and Competition." In light of the UN's landmark 75th anniversary occurring during a pandemic, Suzman discussed how the global response to COVID-19 should have been more unified through international channels like the UN and the WHO. 

Suzman said the pandemic has revealed two paradoxes that have hindered the global response to COVID-19. One is that the pandemic has revealed that countries underinvest in global health organizations. Despite most countries agreeing that the UN and the World Health Organization are necessary, an analysis of countries’ budgets shows that they are not investing sufficient funds in these institutions, Suzman said. 

The United States pulled out of the WHO in July after President Donald Trump accused the UN agency of being under China's control without providing evidence for his allegations.

Another paradox Suzman noted was that a pandemic should have been the perfect reason for the world to have united and taken collective action to fight the spread of the virus — but instead, countries have remained focused on the conditions of their individual nations.

Although Suzman called for nations to unite and solve this global problem together, he admitted there could be potential hindrances to a united front.

“We need to think about this globally,” Suzman said. “But at the same time, it just increases panic and nervousness and concerns by citizens within countries wanting to know what's going to be done for them and what's going to be done within their own borders.” 

Suzman added that in a perfect world, within the UN’s infrastructure, the WHO would have a sufficient amount of resources to be able to track and surveil global diseases and provide technical advice to national governments. 

This effort could have been led by the United States and other UN member states. Suzman said the United States has historically played a critical role in leading global health efforts that have saved millions of lives, but has not done so during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has really only been now in the Trump administration where we have seen that kind of leadership being pulled back,” said Suzman.

Despite this drawback in leadership, Suzman still gave credit to the U.S. for investing around $10 billion in vaccine research.

Like under the Bush and Obama administrations, Suzman is hopeful that the U.S. will return to leading global health efforts. One particular effort Suzman referenced was the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.

Suzman said efforts like the ACT Accelerator help ensure that COVID-19 tools and vaccines will be distributed equitably. Based on the 2020 Goalkeepers Report, published by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, developing countries especially need this support.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also pledged $10 billion over the next decade to help develop and deliver vaccines for the world's poorest countries.

Although the private philanthropic sector has played a large role in supporting developing countries by promoting equitable global health, Suzman stated that the responsibility should be on UN member states to invest in these efforts.

“To me, it's more of a signal of how fundamentally underinvested the world is,” said Suzman. “Philanthropy can do these public goods. They're important. We can play that role, but we shouldn't be. That should be much more funded by member states at scale.”

Suzman remained optimistic that in the wake of the pandemic, private philanthropy platforms like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will lead the way toward inspiring member states to unite in helping countries worldwide that are suffering from the impacts of COVID-19.

“However dark things may look, there are better days around the corner, and that’s what the UN ultimately stands for and what its vision is — a better world for all,” Suzman said.

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