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West Michigan native gives COVID-19 advice and insights

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Holland-born Ambasador (ret.) Bill Garvelink gives counsel on COVID-19 based on global experiences
Ambassador Bill Garvelink

Ambassador Bill Garvelink

Global trends leading to pandemics

1. Propulation growth forcing more areas to be cleared for agricultural land.
2. Urbanization is pushing cities to expand into areas that increase human-animal contact.
3. Climate change forcing both humans and animals to move from their homes.
4. Ease of transportation, allowing a virus to travel the world quickly.
5. Illegal animal trade, including unsanitary "wet markets."

See Ambassador Garvelink's presentation at



Holland, Michigan native Bill Garvelink had a front row seat to a fast-moving and deadly virus while serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ambassador Garvelink, now retired from the foreign service and with over 30 years of international aid experience in a distinguished career at USAID, gave a virtual presentation on "The Future of Pandemics." The talk has been archived on the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan's Youtube site at

He said that a critical element of dealing with a pandemic is "building public confidence" in a plan that has "transparency, being honest of the difficulties" inherent in the process. In the case of the U.S., his concern is that there have been contradictory messages from federal, state and local leaders which creates confusion, worry and non-compliance.

Noting his experiences in the Congo, Garvelink counseled that "it is unlikely that people will follow" any guidelines without building that trust factor. In that setting, scientists and aid workers partnered with trusted local leaders who spread the important messages that mitigated the further spread of the disease.

Ultlimately, he noted, it is "the behavior of every American" that will determine how the country fares with the virus, and that an "enormous amount of testing and contact tracing" is mandatory to understand the trajectory of the virus.

As for the causes of pandemics, the ambassador cited population growth which causes a need for more agricultural land and the expansion of urban areas, creating more contact between humans and animals. In addition, climate change is forcing some humans and animals to move from their long-time homes, again increasing the liklihood of contact. 

Ease of transportation globally ensures that a virus that starts in Wuhan, China winds up in Seattle in very little time. In the Ebola crisis, a case in Ghana led to an infection in Houston within a week. 

Finally, he talked about the growing international illegal trade of animals, including the establishment of  "wet markets." Illegal animal trade is the fourth most lucrative global crime, after human trafficking, drugs and weapons sales.

Ambassador Garvelink called for much more research on the phenomenon of animal-to-human disease transmission, so that scientists can better predict which animals and which diseases are more likely to make that leap into humans. 

His advice for reopening economies focuses on rapid testing and contact tracing, so that surges in tramsmission can be noted early and isolated. He worries about leaders "flying blind" and opening up without understanding the virus's movement within a state or region. Business leaders can be helpful by thinking through how to keep employees and customers safe in their particular commercial situations.

Currently, Ambassador Garvelink serves as the senior advisor for global strategy at the International Medical Corps. He holds the rank of minister counselor in the Senior Foreign Service, and received numerous Superior Honor and Meritorious Honor Awards from the State Department and USAID and two Foreign Service Presidential Meritorius Awards.

He was born in  Holland, Michigan and attended Holland Christian Schools before his B.A. degree at Calvin University in Grand Rapids and an M.A. from the University of Minnesota prior to beginning his international aid and foreign service career.


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