American commitment to global health, both for self-interest and to promote health equity

By Dennis Archambault

Last October, during their mid-year seminar,  Schweitzer Fellows discussed the ethical responsibilities of the United States to support developing countries with personal protection equipment (PPE), ventilators and eventually vaccines. The context was understanding how health equity is achieved.  As a nation whose elected leaders notoriously denied public health precautions, resulting in a high infection rate and mortality, there was a lot of catching up to do. Few would argue the necessity of assuring the health of the American population (you can’t help if you’re not healthy). But what about sharing your leftovers?

President Biden’s announcement to send vaccines to Mexico and Canada is an example of enlightened self-interest. (Canada may not be an impoverished country, but its population is under-vaccinated compared to the U.S.) They are trading partners within the North Americas Free Trade Agreement. Biden also announced early in his administration that the U.S. would commit $4 billion to vaccine relief worldwide, along with rejoining the World Health Organization. These are actions that can contribute to global health equity, at least in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

When the “Arsenal of Health” manufacturers ultimately made sufficient PPE and ventilators for American health needs early in our response to the pandemic, there wasn’t any apparent policy to continuing making those resources available to help supply poorer nations. In today’s Kaiser News Service, Arthur Allen makes the case for donating vaccines to other countries, both in self-interest – controlling the pandemic – and altruism.

Those who care about health equity know the right thing to do is for affluent nations to allocate funds to share health resources and to encourage this ethic in the philanthropic sector. The practice may take root locally, where self-interest still limits health and social equity of Americans.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.