We're on our way to over one billion cases. We won't beat COVID-19 with 'my country first' | Opinion

"All politics is local." Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's quip is a cliche because it is true. And I get it. The first responsibility of government is to its own people.

But John Kennedy issued a Declaration of Interdependence on 4 July 1962, appropriately enough in Philadelphia at an Independence Day event, because he understood that the modern world demanded that leaders take off the blinkers. "Foreign policy" was not just something which affected foreigners. It had direct implications for the home front.

The COVID crisis is a disease of the connected world. It is a clear demonstration that what Yuval Harari calls a vision of the world as a "network of fortresses" will not work. That is how "all politics is local" becomes myopia instead of common sense. Because there will be no true "normality" until the disease is tackled everywhere, and that means focusing on the weakest links in the human chain not just inside the U.S. but globally.

This week, the International Rescue Committee issued a dire wake-up call based on the available scientific evidence about the spread and virulence of the disease. Without immediate and context-appropriate actions, the world risks up to 1 billion COVID-19 infections and over 3 million deaths in 33 fragile countries we serve. Unless the world gets its act together in the next few weeks, not only will the most vulnerable pay the price today for the inaction of the international community, the consequences will be felt across the globe for years, if not decades, to come.

One of the most worrying aspects of the IRC's warning is that, drawn from the Imperial College and World Health Organization forecast based on the trajectory of the disease in China, the dire numbers it forecasts do not accurately encompass the havoc this virus will wreak in the world's poorest countries. For three reasons: first, the model presupposes that levels of healthcare available in China are available globally. One need only look to South Sudan, with 4 ventilators for the entire population, or Venezuela, where half the country's doctors have fled, to understand the generosity of the premise.

Second, we know that when the virus hits a war zone—such as Northeast Syria, where reports of new cases grow daily—it reaches populations at disproportionately high risk, without the luxury of social distancing. An IRC analysis from earlier this month demonstrated that refugee camps are eight times more densely populated than the Diamond Princess cruise ship, four times more densely populated than New York City—and potential hotspots therefore for exponential contagion rates far beyond what the projections suggest.

Third, these figures don't account for not only the deadly knock-on political, economic and humanitarian instability this virus will exacerbate especially in the weakest corners of the world - including the potential strengthening of groups like ISIS that thrive in chaos - but also the direct consequences of sweeping mitigation measures like lockdowns that, while effective in developed nations like Italy and the US, risk driving further poverty, domestic violence and even famine in contexts least prepared to prevent a devastating and deleterious downwards spiral.

A global viral infection demands the response of a global immune system—or it will not be stamped out. The (very mildly) good news is that we are still in a small but critical window of time to mount a robust preventative response to the early stages of COVID-19 in many of these countries still grappling with few confirmed cases, and prevent a further metastasis of this epidemic globally.

The key now therefore is for donors including the U.S. to urgently put flexible funding behind frontline efforts like the IRC's, already positioned to scale up and serve the most vulnerable. US Congress has acted quickly and generously to provide resources for the domestic response, support healthcare professionals and frontline responders, and shore up the U.S. economy. But without a global response, the extraordinary effort to contain COVID, save lives and mitigate its economic impacts here in the United States will be hampered by the virus' resurgence and persistence globally.

Funding for the global response was a mere 0.05 percent of the historic $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed a month ago. As Congress begins to consider a fourth supplemental package to support COVID-19 response, and combined with the looming and paradoxical threat of deep cuts to U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, we join humanitarian partners in calling for $12 billion to support the global response and in particular $5 billion needed to address COVID-19 in crisis settings.

It is vital, however, that in funding these responses we don't just go for a cut-and-paste model. One size doesn't fit all. We need to understand local dynamics, listen to affected populations and be willing to adjust the response. The trauma in Yemen, where fighting in a civil war that has already created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and the health system is unable to cope, shows that intervention needs to be tailored to local circumstance.

It does not just mean ensuring access to personal protective equipment, testing and isolation, or handwashing; it also means working together with governments to remove any restrictions on humanitarian aid, including food and other basic goods, and focusing on meeting wider health and economic needs of large swathes of the population as well as expanding protection services for women and girls, always most at risk in times of crisis.

The IRC's warning is simple: the consequences of inaction will be loss of life and livelihood at an appalling scale. There will be no return to normality across the industrialized world until there is a return to normality everywhere. We are only going to be as strong as our weakest links - whether in our own communities, cities, states or at global scale. We've got to care about large swathes of the world if we are to get back to the normality that we seek.

The phrase "global village" was not used in Kennedy's day. But it conveys the notion of interdependence. And there is a clear message for decision makers: mutual responsibility matters, not just within national borders, but across them. We need to heed that message now.

David Miliband is CEO and president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​