Global Health and Human Rights under the New Administration: Steps to Set Priorities for our Collective Agenda

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The 2020 U.S. election season has been a highly charged, deeply emotional and, let’s be honest, entirely exhausting experience. Though elections serve as an opportunity for people to indicate their choice of candidates and illustrate their policy preferences in a representative system of government, this election continues to feel like more of an expression of our divisions than an expression of what unites us. This is as true for those of us in the US, as it is for our friends and allies around the world who continue to watch our process unfold with concern.

While there will always be disagreement in the expression of policy desires for a country spanning 3,000 miles, and now over 320,000,000 people, these deep divisions lay bare not only immense challenges for the new administration, but also for each one of us as we determine our individual roles in building bridges, healing our society, and finding ways to connect again — even in areas where we may not agree. Somewhere between the political and the personal lies our work: informed by the political environment within which we operate and our personal reactions to it, there are conscious choices to be made about how we can each contribute to helping advance global health and human rights in the current moment.

Universal healthcare, the role of government in determining how epidemics are managed, and the level of support given to international aid are naturally contentious topics in the best of times. But while never before have the issues felt so fractious, there has also never been a time when it has been more important for us all to engage and collectively do all we can to address the broad range of regressive steps the U.S. government has taken over the past four years. This is a responsibility that requires each of us, from students and faculty to researchers, programmers and activists, to unify and push for more compassionate, inclusive and equitable policies not only to stem the tide but ultimately to move our country forward.

In the past few years alone the United States withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council and set up its own Commission on Unalienable Rights intended to limit rights in the name of religious freedom; re-instated and expanded the Global Gag Rule and withheld agreed upon funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); cut the U.S. refugee program by 50% and separated migrant families at the U.S southern border; withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement and reversed nearly 100 environmental protections; limited the federal and global response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and set plans in motion to withdraw from the World Health Organization. While this list could go on and on, these are some of the most egregious examples hamstringing the immediate ability of the global health community to support the health and rights of vulnerable populations the world over.

As a first step, all of these actions must be reversed by Executive Order come January, but it will take action from all the rest of us to ensure these reversals actually make a difference in people’s lives. The level of energy we saw around this recent election offers a critical opportunity to once again foster a spirit of innovation, collaboration and engagement.

The possibility exists to convert this level of concern into clear advocacy, research and policy goals.

The pandemic is real and not going anywhere soon. Consistent with the right to health, there is a clear need to ensure equitable access to vaccines and treatments for everyone around the world, and without distinction. This is a tall but necessary order. But structures also need to change to redress long-standing injustices and bolster health and human rights in ways that can have long-lasting effects on promoting and ensuring progressive and equitable policies, making the next four years a turning point for health, rights and justice. Addressing structural racism and other forms of historically entrenched inequality head on is an opportunity we must seize. These actions are needed, their urgency cannot be overstated, and they must occur without delay.

The USC-IIGH team like most of the world has been focused on what may be possible with a Biden/Harris administration. And while addressing past retrogressions and the current pandemic must be immediate priorities, there is nonetheless the need for a long-term vision for global health and human rights, the need for a rekindling of trust in science, the need for moving towards health-for-all in this country, and a need for reestablishing a global leadership role in health policy. 

Situated within a private U.S. based university, at USC-IIGH we recognize the strengths and limitations of our vantage point, and the responsibility we have to take this work on, not only as individuals, but in every aspect of our research, teaching and policy engagement. We pledge to work with our partners in Los Angeles and around the world to help ensure that we can collectively maximize all opportunities for positive change.

USC-IIGH will continue to utilize our experience spearheading innovative education and research projects and partnerships to develop materials and solutions that confront these persistent inequalities. We will generate evidence to inform policy and practice, highlighting structures, hierarchies and power dynamics that may need to be dismantled and re-imagined to promote the more equitable and less divided world to which we all aspire. We remain committed to sharing research and materials that elevate discussions both locally and globally that truly take rights and health into account.

The current moment – in the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests, in the midst of a global pandemic, and in preparation for a new administration – is a moment for reflection, for empathy and for truly purposeful planning. This level of disruption at both the global and national level affords us an opportunity: we must be bold in our ambition, optimistic about what we can achieve, and committed to long-term action.

We look forward to working with you in putting the last four years of atavistic US policies behind us, and to addressing COVID, climate change, sexual and reproductive health and rights and all the concerns of our current world through a health, rights and justice lens. It will not be easy for all the reasons we all know, but we must work together to make these goals into realities and engage each other to best advance policies and practices that acknowledge and embrace our shared humanity. 

Sofia Gruskin on behalf of the USC-IIGH Team

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