The American response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan has been immediate and generous. KOMO 4 television in Seattle alone raised more than a half million dollars in just a few days to help the American Red Cross respond to the millions of Japanese residents suffering from the destruction.
By one tally, Washington state residents donated $7 million to relief efforts in Japan in the first week of the tragedy.
While everyday Americans are showing the true heart of this nation, the U.S. Congress is sending an entirely different message to impoverished nations trying to minimize the number of their citizens who die each year from tuberculosis, malaria and HIV. Apparently we have money to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, but too few dollars to prevent pregnant mothers from passing HIV to their unborn children.
We understand that as a nation, we are immersed in a sea of red ink. We also understand the need to reduce the national debt and to balance the federal budget.
But as Americans we value more than money. We place a high value on human life and we know that the United States plays a pivotal role in global health and improving the quality of life for people living on the fringes of society. Monetary contributions to international health care programs spell the difference between life and death for millions of our fellow travelers on planet earth.
That’s why it’s so disconcerting to see the spending plan put forth by the Republicans who now control the United States House of Representatives. Their spending bill for 2011 includes drastic reductions in foreign health assistance — cuts that endanger the lives of millions of vulnerable adults and children in destitute circumstances.
According to Results, a grassroots organization that advocates for the poor and medically fragile, the GOP budget reflects a 30 percent cut in the Development Assistance Account and a 15 percent reduction in the Global Health Account. According to Results spokesman Blair Hinderliter, the $450 million proposed cut to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, will mean that in 2012:
• 58,000 HIV-positive pregnant women will not receive the drugs that help prevent transmission of the virus to their children;
• 414,000 people will not be provided with antiretroviral medications;
• 3.7 million people will not be tested for AIDS;
• 317,000 people will not be tested or treated for tuberculosis;
• 10.4 million bed nets will not be provided to people fighting malaria; and
• 6 million treatments for malaria will not be administered.
These proposed cuts defy human decency and common sense.
It’s not as if these vital federal dollars have been squandered. It is estimated that through the efforts of the global fund, an amazing 6.5 million lives have been saved. We say it again — 6.5 million spared lives. That’s something that every American can take pride in. We, through our federal dollars, are making a difference in the lives of the poor and vulnerable — life altering differences.
Most Americans believe that we spend too much on foreign assistance. Polls show that a majority of us believe that foreign aid eats up about a quarter of the federal budget.
That’s not accurate.
“The U.S. spends less than 1 percent of the federal budget on poverty-focused foreign aid programs,” Hinderliter said. “And while the money spent amounts to little more than a rounding error in the federal budget, some of the results realized from these programs are breathtaking – and life-giving.”
The hard-fought gains – and lives saved – will be for naught if the United States backs away from its humanitarian assistance.
Michael Gerson, a former policy advisor and speech writer for President George W. Bush, wrote in a recent column in The Washington Post: “These reductions were intended to be symbolic, but what do they symbolize? Fiscal responsibility? Hardly. No one can reasonably claim that the budget crisis exists because America spends too much on bed nets and AIDS drugs. ... The main initiatives on malaria and AIDS were created under Republican leadership. If the goal of House Republicans is to squander the Republican legacy on global health, they are succeeding.”
Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, has been an outspoken proponent of global health care spending. We trust that she and her Democratic colleagues in the U.S. Senate know the true heart of America, and will restore the funding cuts proposed by House Republicans.
It’s the decent and humane solution – even in a budget crisis.