On April 3, the United States banned the export of personal protective gear, stating that our own supply was too important to ship out during the crisis.
A few days earlier, India banned exports of essential medications including hydroxychloroquine due to manufacturing shortages. Hydroxychloroquine is used to treat malaria as well as autoimmune disorders. There was some anecdotal evidence that it might help with coronavirus, though studies were inconclusive.
Two countries, two bans. For the exact same reason – to protect the needs of their populations. So what’s the difference?
The difference is that America is a powerful country and isn’t afraid to use that power to get what it wants. President Trump threatened that if India didn’t drop its ban on hydroxychloroquine exports, there would be consequences:
During a press briefing at the White House on Monday, Trump said: “I spoke to him [Indian Prime Minister Modi] Sunday morning, called him, and I said we’d appreciate your allowing our supply to come out. If he doesn’t allow it to come out, that would be OK, but of course, there may be retaliation. Why wouldn’t there be?”
The USA wasn’t about to run out of hydroxychloroquine – it had a stockpile of 30 million doses. But President Trump had pumped the drug up as a potential miracle cure for COVID-19 and wanted to ensure we had access to even more. It took less than 24 hours for India to backtrack on its export ban and agree to ship some of its stock to the United States. No one was surprised – that’s what American power does.
This was not an isolated incident. 3M announced that the American president had ordered it to stop shipping protective masks to Canada and Latin America, potentially threatening the safety of healthcare workers across the Western Hemisphere. At least five different countries have accused the USA of diverting equipment by outbidding them after the purchases had already been made. While the US has denied these reports, sources within the administration suggested that paying inflated prices in order to stockpile supply had become policy:
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security official told Reuters this week that U.S. companies and the government have been paying above market price for much of the gear purchased overseas.
The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter, said the United States would not stop buying “until we have way too much” and could still be searching out protective gear abroad through August.
“We’ve gotten our hands on every bit of it that we can,” the official said.
There are benefits to money and power. But we need to recognize the costs. When we use our advantages to get what we want, others who can’t compete will go without what they need. With all that excess cash we could have prepared ahead of time, made sure our health stockpiles were adequate back when extra production was easier to come by. Instead we stayed unprepared for months. Once we finally took the crisis seriously it was too late, so we responded by taking from others.
Last week a friend told me he supported the decision to cut off funding to the World Health Organization. My friend said that America’s 25% share of WHO funding was too much, I pointed out that the USA has 30% of the money on Earth. I told him that WHO supported essential programs to fight disease across the world, with human lives at stake. He said that he didn’t care, it wasn’t his fault that the rest of the world had problems. I explained that we stay rich in part by keeping others poor, that our policies DO contribute to the rest of the world’s problems. The argument didn’t go anywhere – no matter what I said, he wasn’t willing to acknowledge any responsibility outside the USA.
This blog’s central theme is, “Who is my neighbor?” I believe Jesus teaches us to have mercy on others, to be compassionate towards the distressed and to act on that compassion no matter who the person is or where they are from. Like the Good Samaritan himself, the fact that we didn’t cause the person’s suffering doesn’t mean we can’t take responsibility for their healing – we do it out of our love for others and for Christ.
But it should be acknowledged that often we ARE to blame for the shortfalls that other nations and people experience. Our actions have helped cause their suffering. That gives us a direct responsibility for their situation in addition to the responsibility we take on due to our faith.
Years ago I did a Lenten series that highlighted the effects of American actions on the global poor. Our wealth is used to pressure foreign countries to relax worker safety laws, exploit foreign laborers, and prop up industries that treat employees like indentured slaves. We instruct international organizations to refuse help to African farmers, we pass laws designed to keep poor nations from becoming self-sufficient, structure food aid to boost our own corporate profits, and even delay and limit famine aid to Ethiopia so American farmers can maximize their windfall. Our appetite for beef contributes to malnutrition among the foreign poor while our desire for fancy wood dispossesses them of the their land. The excess trash we produce is shipped across the ocean to poison poor people. We fund warlords with an artificially inflated diamond market and encourage child labor due to our lust for gold jewelry and coins. We terrorize civilian populations with armed drones and are the world’s greatest profiteers from arms sales. Even when our factories kill tens of thousands of the poor, we refuse responsibility.
We enjoy the spoils of wealth by maximizing our advantage. We get more so they get less. This has been going on since the Native Americans were pushed off this soil, since Africans were enslaved for cotton profits, since the term “banana republic” was coined to define countries who had been taken over by US fruit corporations. To deny that our wealth comes at the expense of others would be to deny history.
What happens after you acknowledge this? What comes next if you are willing to admit that American1 wealth has come at the expense of suffering and poverty?
Take responsibility. Treat the needy in other nations like you would want to be treated.
Like they are your neighbor.2
 I have focused on American wealth here, but that does not absolve the wealthy in the rest of the world. Your wealth, too, comes with the blood and sweat of other souls. Of course many of you already know the history of how your nations in Europe and Asia used war and imperialism to extract wealth – the abuse of Haiti by France, Cambodia by China, Congo by Belgium, Ethiopia by Italy, South-West Africa by Germany, and so on is well recorded in history. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and others wiped out and displaced the native populations which had occupied their current lands, then abused their descendants. Right now most of the world’s wealthy nations are party to trade laws that advantage them at the expense of poor nations, environmental laws that pass their worst impacts off on the poor, and overconsumption that continues to extra goods and leads to deforestation and population displacement across South America, Africa, and south/southeast Asia. Switzerland and others facilitate shady financial practices which often steal wealth from the needy of other nations. Even within the “Majority World”, much of the profits of the rich come at the expense of the poor, who suffer low wages, the loss of their land, and the violation of their human rights so that those on top can amass even more. America is by no means alone here.
 America appears to have passed their peak in the epidemic. Most of the wealthy European and Asian nations have the worst behind them. But in some of the poorer, more tropical nations the epidemic has spread slower, and deaths are only just now beginning to ramp up. If it gets worse in June, or perhaps in November, if they start seeing their supplies run short and their doctors overwhelmed, will you do everything possible to help? Will you send extra equipment, medical professionals? Will you lobby your governments to send more? If the government response is inadequate will you do everything possible to send privately, via your local hospitals or your own pocketbook? Will you do only enough to assuage your own conscience, or enough to make a difference?