Politics of Poverty

Remembering Senator Richard Lugar at a time of international crisis

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Senator Richard Lugar. Photo: Flickr

The Indiana Senator’s vision and playbook of American collaboration on the world stage is what we need today.

The world lost a humble giant one year ago this week.

Few doubt that US Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana would have had much to say about how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year at this time, obituaries of Senator Lugar led with his historic leadership on arms control treaties and sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa. At Oxfam, we also celebrate his partnership as a champion for international cooperation, agricultural development (like his game-changing Global Food Security Act), transparency (like his work to empower local communities to benefit from extractive industries), and fighting global pandemics.

Through it all, Senator Lugar understood the value of American leadership and collaboration on the world stage. He played a central role in Congress in establishing the global effort to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Thanks to his efforts, the US embraced partnerships with other governments and international agencies like UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO). The move was very much in line with the multilateral tradition of conservative internationalists. The successful results speak for themselves.

Senator Lugar’s prescription of American leadership was also at the core of his response to the threat of avian flu pandemic in 2005. When WHO declared that it was inadequately resourced, Senator Lugar helped appropriate additional funds for the UN agency while calling on US agencies to step up. The questions he raised in his Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the subject are prescient in today’s context:

If the pandemic does reach the United States, how much medicine and vaccine will be available? Who will get priority? And how will these vaccines and treatments be physically distributed? What steps will the Government take to restrict the spread of the disease? Banning international travel, closing schools, canceling all public events, or declaring a national stay-at-home holiday period are among measures suggested by experts.

If many thousands of people in a metropolitan area become very ill with flu over a short period of time, as some fear, how will hospitals and emergency rooms handle the overwhelming surge of patients?

Avoiding that scenario was the priority then—and the bottom line for Senator Lugar was clear—as he and then-Senator Barack Obama wrote in The New York Times: "It is essential for the international community, led by the United States, to take decisive action to prevent a pandemic.”

Senator Lugar foresaw the danger of COVID-19. Surely, his playbook of American collaboration to rally and shape the global response is what we need today.

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