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12.14.2021

We Don’t Have To Accept Our ‘New Normal’

As we come to the end of another difficult year in global health, we must ask ourselves: What can we do to build a more equitable world?

By Rabih Torbay

As we come to the end of another difficult year in global health, it’s becoming easier to accept the “new normals” we’ve grown accustomed to.

Millions of deaths and hundreds of millions of cases have made us numb to the horrors of COVID-19. We’ve become used to seeing overflowing hospital wards and hearing stories of health care worker burnout. We are content to accept that the vast majority of COVID-19 vaccines are going to rich countries, leaving the poorest countries to wait another year or more.

We know we will not achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goal targets that were established by the United Nations General Assembly and meant to be reached by 2030, and that climate change is a health care emergency with no immediate solution. We are watching rates of suicide and mental illness increase as a global mental health crisis spreads. And we understand that communities of color bear these burdens more.

We’re used to living in a world where all these things are accepted as normal. But we shouldn’t be.

The pandemic should have made us realize that global health security is not a zero-sum game: none of us are made safer by looking out for our own interests at the expense of others. As United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said earlier this year, “disasters do not respect national boundaries.” The world’s health is a responsibility all of us bear—before, during, and after a pandemic.

But wealthy countries such as the United States should bear more of that responsibility. As we move into a new year, we cannot afford to wait to begin the hard work of addressing the injustices COVID-19 has revealed. We must start working now to recover the hard-won gains the pandemic erased, especially in maternal and child mortality. But we must also ask why such progress was lost so quickly, and how we can build a system that is more resilient to major shocks.

The pandemic should have made us realize that global health security is not a zero-sum game: none of us are made safer by looking out for our own interests at the expense of others.

Now is the time for the United States to think boldly and press forward with long-term investments that can transform global health. That includes important initiatives such as pandemic preparedness and the Global Health Security Agenda, but also programs and policies that address climate change, promote peace, lift people out of poverty, increase mental health services, and improve social conditions that can affect health outcomes.

If we do not use this moment as a mandate to act, then the hard lessons of the last two years will have been in vain, and we won’t be any more prepared for the next pandemic than we were for this one.

There is no “over there” when it comes to our health. What happens in Afghanistan, Haiti, Yemen, and Ethiopia should matter to all of us. That’s why Project HOPE is supporting health care workers in the US as well as around the world, and why we responded to Hurricane Ida in Louisiana with the same urgency as to the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti: Because it is unacceptable that any person should go without health care, regardless of where they live.

We don’t have to settle for a world of health inequities. We don’t have to give in to climate change or give up on the ambitious aims of the Sustainable Development Goals. We shouldn’t settle for less than a world where everyone has access to the same level of care.

We don’t have to accept the world as it is. It’s up to us to build the one we want.

Rabih Torbay is president and CEO of Project HOPE. This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Health Affairs, available online here.

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