Valerie Percival is an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, and a senior fellow with the Canadian International Council.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government deserve praise for a pledge to promote gender equality, including reproductive rights, through Canada's Group of Seven presidency. Seemingly unnoticed, however, is Canada's reluctance to advance a broader global health agenda: the Trudeau government does not plan to host a G7 Health Ministers Meeting, a fixture for the past several years, during its presidency.
This failure to prioritize global health in the G7 process could not come at a worse time. Global health stewardship works like a stoplight; we only recognize its importance when it fails. And it may be on the brink of failing.
The world has long relied on the "health security umbrella" of the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sends epidemiologists around the globe to investigate outbreaks and provide assistance to stop their spread. CDC budget cuts will soon end such work in 39 countries, including outbreak hot spots such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, inciting panic among many global health experts.
What will take the CDC's place? Some countries, such as France, have impressive expertise, but nothing matches the CDC. The World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Programme faces a US$55-million funding gap for its contingency fund, and an international community wary of its leadership capabilities.
Enter Canada's Presidency of the G7. In a troubled and divided world, galvanizing action to address global health threats provides low-hanging fruit for the Trudeau government. International co-operation on health issues has been remarkable. Scientists share data and public-private partnerships fund vaccine and drug discoveries. Innovators design technologies that benefit vulnerable populations. Initiatives such as the Global Fund for HIV/AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria and GAVI (the Vaccine Alliance) provide treatment, vaccines and health commodities to some of the world's poorest countries. Such action improves individual well-being and contributes to social and economic productivity.
Such collaboration remains uneven. More work is needed to ensure equitable access to medicines and technologies. For many, universal basic health services remain out of reach. Those with non-communicable diseases die at a much higher rate in lower-income contexts. And in conflict zones, health workers and infrastructure are deliberately targeted, a clear violation of international law. Yet in comparison to the challenges of co-operation in other sectors, such as the environment, health stands out as a success story.
The G7 has been key to that success. It built consensus among the world's richest and most influential countries. It advocated for access to HIV/AIDS treatment and created and financed the Global Fund. It pushed for international action on polio. And the Muskoka Initiative under Canada's last presidency, although not embracing comprehensive reproductive health services, focused resources on maternal and child health.
Canada is now perfectly positioned to promote a G7 Global Health Initiative to fill the gap left by the CDC's budget cuts. Such an initiative would strengthen the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme and ensure a transparent, collaborative and evidence-based response to global health events. A G7 initiative could support scientific capacity and research in lower-income countries, as well as stronger and equitable health systems. Canada could also enable the WHO to access our Field Epidemiology Training Program, heightening their capacity to investigate global health events and allowing Canadian epidemiologists to obtain invaluable experience.
So why is Canada hesitant to promote global health? Perhaps Mr. Trudeau is concerned that too strong a focus on health would highlight Canada's strong (and correct) stand on reproductive rights, including abortion, which would meet strong U.S. opposition and potentially derail the summit. Yet the G7 navigated similar challenges in the past. And Canada can avoid a counter-productive showdown by highlighting that a Global Health Initiative ensures other countries stop free-riding on the United States and the CDC.
Global health also fits with Canada's stated G7 priorities. Health is a key component of equitable economic growth and lays the foundation for peace and security. Access to health services is critical for gender equity, and emerging research shows that health systems are an overlooked tool to enhance women's empowerment.
The Trudeau government's foreign-policy engagement has been high on rhetoric. But Canada's international assistance as a percentage of national income is close to an all-time low, well behind comparable countries. While our rhetoric shines, our promises are beginning to sound hollow.
This ultimately may not matter for Mr. Trudeau's domestically focused government. Its unstated objective for the G7 Charlevoix Summit might be to ride Mr. Trudeau's international popularity, reinforce the government's feminist credentials and secure photo ops to support the Liberal's re-election strategy.
Yet this misses an important opportunity to make a meaningful contribution in today's uncertain world. It is not too late. Canada can announce a G7 Health Ministerial meeting on the margins of the World Health Assembly in May. This meeting would pave the way for the announcement of a G7 Global Health Initiative at the June summit in Charlevoix.
Global health clearly needs a little "Canada's back." Let's give it to them.