The USAID COVID-19 Task Force – about 200 strong at its inception in 2020 but now with less – held a meeting last week to talk about the impact of Congress not allocating funding for the agency’s global COVID efforts. The task force’s executive director, Jeremy Konindic, told team members that he would understand if they were looking for other jobs — and would write letters of recommendation if necessary, according to one of the people on the call.
The agency’s turmoil adds another challenge to its already difficult task of promoting vaccinations around the world – especially in developing countries, such as many in Africa, where less than 20 percent of the population has received the shots. Public health experts have said repeatedly that global vaccination efforts could save thousands of lives and help prevent the types that could disrupt life again in countries with high vaccination rates.
Over the past two years, top Biden administration officials and global health leaders have touted USAID’s global vaccination work as critical to larger, international vaccination goals. Its new Global Vax program, announced late last year, was supposed to take the agency’s work even further by rapidly increasing vaccination rates in 11 developing countries.
Now, programming focused on vaccine uptake appears to be paying off at a time when there are increasing caseloads among Omicron’s BA.2 subvariants – and even more subvariants are emerging globally.
Because more funding is in doubt, staff working on the global COVID response at USAID have begun to tell agency partners that they can no longer rely on plans set for future months. One of the people with knowledge of the matter said that the targets set later in the year are either being reconsidered or abandoned.
Many of those strategies are focused on increasing the dose available, expanding available COVID-19 treatments and strengthening health systems more broadly – goals that global health leaders say are most important at this stage of the pandemic.
Last week, after news broke that Congress would cut $5 billion from the COVID-19 supplemental funding package for global pandemic responses, USAID employees said they were scrambling to find new jobs.
Under american rescue plan, many were hired as Schedule A employees – with the understanding that the positions would expire when the work was done or funding ran out. But with global vaccination now a major focus to end the pandemic, Schedule A hires, contractors and others were shocked to learn they would have to stop work in the coming months. While dozens are now considering leaving before funding runs out, scores in global pandemic response teams could be more affected.
The person on the call said Konindic was more optimistic about future funding in an earlier call with the task force team, but the tone changed during the most recent call. While he and other agency leaders have been vocal about the impact of ending the programs, there is little they can do to keep the work going as it currently does without congressional action.
“We’re now at a point where without additional funding we’re going to have to start shutting down our programming,” Konyndyk told The New York Times. an opinion column Which ran earlier this week with the headline “The Incredible Stupidity of Ending Global COVID Aid”.
He has been blunt that the new versions can come from not acting globally – something he has described as “the biggest risk we face domestically and globally”.
But despite the risks of the new forms, many USAID workers on the task force said they had no choice but to look for new jobs.
“I think everyone is disappointed,” said a USAID global health worker. “It’s been our life for the past two years, so it’s hard to separate from it.”