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Former U.S. Ambassador Power Slams Initial Global Response To Coronavirus

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (file photo)

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power says a failure to produce a coordinated global response to the coronavirus outbreak has compounded the disaster and as long as the virus rages anywhere in the world no one is safe.

Speaking with RFE/RL in an exclusive video interview on April 9 just before the UN Security Council was set to hold its first meeting about the COVID-19 crisis, which has infected more than 1.5 million people and killed more than 93,000, Power said that among the global community there are "a lot of lessons that sadly, we are not applying to the COVID response."

“The show of disunity is devastating…we have compounded a disaster and humanitarian catastrophe so far,” she said.

'Disunity Is Devastating': Former U.S. Ambassador Says UN Must Get Its Act Together
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Power, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under former President Barack Obama, said that large institutions suffer from collective action problems, and “the world is a large institution.”

One place where such problems are overcome, she said, is at the United Nations, "when countries step forward particularly powerful countries and catalyze global coalitions."

“Let's right the ship. Let's show that the United Nations and each of our national governments were built for moments like this. And let's recognize that, as long as there is the COVID virus raging in one part of the world, none of us is safe,” she said.

She cited a couple recent examples of such international cooperation during her time as UN ambassador from 2013 to 2017: in the fight against the extremist group Islamic State (IS), and in countering the Ebola epidemic.

In the case of the Ebola outbreak, which Power wrote about in her 2019 book The Education Of An Idealist: A Memoir, she said she took the step to convene an extraordinary Security Council session in 2014 to declare the crisis "a threat to international peace and security."

"On one level, these are just words -- yeah, kind of 'duh,' of course it's a threat to international peace and security," she told RFE/RL. "But actually, because that hadn't been done in the 70-year history of the UN, it really was a signal of the need for global solidarity."

"It's what happened back in 2014-2015," she said, explaining that the United States contributed troops and health workers to West Africa to build Ebola treatment units, while leveraging that effort to ensure that other countries such as China and France and the United Kingdom were taking their own leadership roles.

"And that's how it works," she said. "It requires the pooling of resources. But usually there has to be a team captain."

WHO Failures

Power acknowledged the failures of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the onset of the current coronavirus crisis, singling out its delay in declaring the outbreak a pandemic, and the agency's praise for China, where the outbreak originated, "for, you know, its wonderful response at the time that it was in the midst of a cover-up."

But "UN agencies are going to be the sum of the views and the pressures and the interests and the resources of their most powerful members," she said. "And unfortunately, at the time, the WHO, I think, didn't take the steps that it will look back and wish it had taken."

However, Power was critical of the recent suggestion made by President Donald Trump that U.S. funding to WHO might be put on hold due to its handling of the crisis.

"I can't even conceive of how anybody could think it's a good idea to reduce the funds," the former ambassador said.

In defending the agency, she countered the idea among some people that the WHO "is itself a rapid-response arm. I think is a mistaken understanding of what it is."

"It's technical expertise. It's, you know, gathering data from all over the world in order to declare epidemics or pandemics," Power said.

"So it's like an alert system, more than it is a response system, and then we need a response system in parallel.

"I think right now, what's important is to work through the WHO, work through the UN Security Council, and recognize all of us, all national governments, that our fates are more tied than we like to think, to the fates of people in poor countries and vulnerable communities," she added.

Power also said China -- which she acknowledged was contributing protective equipment to various countries -- "does not have the muscle memory to build a global coalition" and is not prepared to lead the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

"That's something China's never going to want to do. China doesn't like harassing other governments to do things they don't want to do. That's something United States, you know, has made a career out of doing," she said. "Or the sort of nuts and bolts -- where are the public health professionals going to come from, how are they going to get there, where are the gloves going to come from, the masks. Where's the water going to come from."

As for the future of international institutions being able to implement a rapid response to such threats, she said it would be difficult, but not impossible, without the United States.

"It'll be very hard without the richest country in the world, the most powerful country in the world, the biggest donor to the WHO, the biggest donor to the United Nations," Power said.

"Without the United States being part of that creation moment, I think it will be challenging. It doesn't mean it can't be done."

Written by MichaelScollon based on an interview by John Mastrini