In global disasters, supply chains are a matter of life and death. I have been there. As head of the World Food Program and in leading the fight against cholera in Haiti, I have been responsible for leading strategy and operations in famines, earthquakes, and epidemics. In the battle against coronavirus, we have seen heroic acts of cooperation and compassion. But, in an unfolding tragedy, these threaten to be overwhelmed as nations, provinces, cities, and even neighbors scramble to obtain vital COVID-19 equipment and supplies, with stocks wholly inadequate to meet demand. In this trainwreck, our dedicated medical front line heroes are being left without the tools to win the battle. 

During the World Food Crisis in 2007-2008, we found ourselves in a perfect storm of doubling food costs, hoarding, and weather induced food shortages. Nations erected emergency food export controls, and entire countries could not purchase food. As head of the U.N. World Food Program (W.F.P.), the world’s largest humanitarian organization, we were called upon to help ensure nations such as Liberia, Afghanistan, and even the Philippines could get food. Each day we scrambled, hovering on the abyss as an estimated additional 170 million people were thrown into abject hunger.

At the time, W.F.P. worked with heads of state and major grain and transport companies to set up a sophisticated emergency supply chain operation to deliver large quantities of food to the farthest corners of the world. For the most vulnerable this effort provided only a temporary safety net. We engaged the G-20 to successfully negotiate an agreement whereby nations would no longer place export controls on emergency humanitarian food supplies, an agreement that still stands. More recently, as U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti, I have helped lead global efforts to successfully defeat the cholera epidemic there and have seen how the “impossible” can become a successful reality under unified operational management and a clear strategy. It was humbling to realize how powerful and deadly these hidden microbes could be. I learned we must be unified and vigilant.  

Today, we face the same life-threatening dynamics regarding COVID-19 operations. The unfolding COVID-19 supply chain disaster provides a definitive opportunity for nations to come together and activate a unified strategy to utilize all possible assets across public and private operational, emergency, and health domains, to save lives. Such coalitions must include local and national governments, global institutions, civil society, militaries, and the private sector. Demand for essential equipment and medicine vastly outstrips supply, with no possibility for the poorest populations to compete or place orders. These considerations must include the more than 70 million estimated refugees and displaced persons, who already have high risk factors for an epidemic like the coronavirus. 

Over the past few months, as President of the Asia Society, we have been working with States, major medical supply companies, philanthropic and global leaders: All are crying out for a qualified public entity to assess and map need, in a coordinated, non-political, fact-based process. The world has excellent capacity to do so and can deploy such expertise. 

Specifically, such strategies must, under a unified global operations management plan, include:

Supply chains: there must be a unified strategy to ramp up and establish new emergency supply chain systems — through air-bridges and storage depots and — to ensure aggregated access to vital supplies as fragile trading and shipping systems continue to unravel. For this to succeed, a mapping of  all qualified sources of life saving COVID-19 equipment and supplies and assist in the global ramp up of capabilities.

Prioritization: The most vulnerable populations are least prepared to compete in obtaining supplies. Nations and humanitarian actors must map, through objective criteria, population vulnerability and need for supplies regarding the spread of the coronavirus.

Funds: Nations must ensure timely emergency fund flow. The most vulnerable nations and populations must work with world leaders and global and regional financial institutions to ensure emergency support to obtain and deliver these critical supplies.

Safety nets: The hardest hit nations must work with experts to quickly establish safety nets that reach those farthest behind, providing a fragile buffer to the daily deteriorating situation.

Humanitarian action: Support humanitarian organizations, who are the frontline responders across the globe, and have a vast network of assets, expertise, and partnerships. They can play a vital role in containing the destabilizing impact that the pandemic will have on fragile communities, particularly refugees, displaced persons and the most vulnerable, especially the disabled, orphaned children and those in abject conditions in prisons and war zones.

Science: Connect and unite health, technology and medical actors to share common information and solutions to contain, test, and treat the virus.

Private Sector: Rally private sector actors to maximize global technology, communication networks and information platforms, manufacturing capabilities, assets and expertise.

Economic Diplomacy: There needs to be urgent work with global institutions and diplomatic actors to ensure against export controls on life-saving goods and to facilitate the vital flow of trade, health and humanitarian cargo, assistance and personnel.

Military: Military actors have vast assets and need to be asked to activate their non-military assets for the coordinated use of logistics and exceptional capabilities such as medical evacuations.

Communication: the world’s top companies and social media influencers should be brought together to develop common campaigns to fight discrimination and disinformation and convey essential medical guidance alongside efforts to prevent the spread of the disease.

There are proven methodologies to accomplish all of these action points at global scale. This battle can be won. There is much talk about the vital need for early recovery and long-term recovery as we face the impact of recession, even depression. But first and foremost we must defeat this virulent enemy and smash its advance. This is one where pitting neighbor against neighbor will only intensify the virus’ impact, and lead to our mutual suffering and the continued loss of life and way of life.

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  • Josette Sheeran is a humanitarian and diplomatic leader, with a track record of deploying effective solutions on the front lines of challenges facing humanity. She is currently President and CEO of the global Asia Society and UN Special Envoy for Haiti, where she has directed successful global efforts to end a cholera epidemic.  She has served as Executive Director of the UN World Food Program, Vice Chair of The World Economic Forum, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economics, Energy and Agriculture and as Deputy US Trade Representative. Her Ted Talk on Ending World Hunger has been viewed more than 1 million times. She invites you to join the Dr. Fauci fan club she has started on Facebook to support him and our frontline public health heroes.