Ex-Obama official on the 'most troubling' difference between Ebola and COVID responses

Max Zahn with Andy Serwer
·3 min read

The “most troubling” difference between the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak six years ago and its handling of the novel coronavirus is the nation’s current failure to lead a coordinated global effort to tackle the virus, said Gayle Smith, who helped fight the Ebola outbreak as the National Security Council’s top development official and later became the head of USAID under the Obama administration.

“The biggest difference, the one that in many ways I find the most troubling, is that we are not seeing a global response,” Smith told Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on Sept. 1.

“We are not seeing American leadership in marshaling that global response,” adds Smith, now the CEO of global anti-poverty group ONE Campaign. “That global response is one that obviously, we want to impact the lives of the world's most disenfranchised, but also matters to us.”

‘There’s this rift now’

Efforts made by the Group of Seven member countries in March to release a joint statement about the pandemic were derailed by U.S. State Department efforts to include mention of the coronavirus as the “Wuhan Virus,” CNN reported.

Gayle Smith speaks to Yahoo Finance.
Gayle Smith speaks to Yahoo Finance.

In April, Trump said he was suspending U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, or WHO, citing the organization’s opposition to travel restrictions imposed upon individuals departing from China. The following month, Trump announced the U.S. would cut ties with the organization altogether.

Trump has repeatedly referred to U.S. travel restrictions on flights from China that took effect on Feb. 2 as a key part of his coronavirus response. But the rules included loopholes that allowed 8,000 Chinese and other foreign individuals traveling from the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau to visit the U.S. in the first three months after the ban, the Associated Press reported.

Smith acknowledged that the WHO “is not a perfect organization” but called the dispute between the Trump administration and the WHO a “tragic, tragic rift.”

“Global leadership would entail for instance, President Trump working with the WHO,” Smith says. “And there's this rift now.”

This Nov. 13, 2014, photo shows White House adviser Gayle Smith, attending a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, on President Barack Obama administration’s response to Ebola in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House compound in Washington. President Barack Obama tapped Smith on April 30, 2015, to run the U.S. Agency for International Development, putting a former journalist and longtime Africa expert in charge of his global development agenda for the final years of his presidency. Smith, the senior director for development and democracy at the White House's National Security Council, has had a diverse career working on humanitarian efforts in and out of government, including a former stint at USAID.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
This Nov. 13, 2014, photo shows White House adviser Gayle Smith, attending a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, on President Barack Obama administration’s response to Ebola in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House compound in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Smith spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Smith, who worked alongside former Vice President Joe Biden, said she would congratulate him if he wins the presidential election in November.

She contrasted the current U.S. posture toward global cooperation with steps undertaken by the Obama administration in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.

“During Ebola, President Obama convened a summit with the Secretary General of the [United Nations],” she says. “He sat in the Oval Office — I was with him many times — [and] called leaders all over the world and said, ‘What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do? We all got to work together and get this done.’”

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