Lessons From the Pandemic
By Tom Gutowski | May 16, 2020
The federal response to the coronavirus has been less than stellar. The initial rollout of testing was botched, and our per capita rate of testing was for a long time very low, making it difficult to do contact tracing or targeted quarantining, or to get accurate numbers or reopen the economy safely.
The Commerce Department urged American businesses to export N95 masks and other supplies to China even while shortages existed in the United States. Many healthcare workers still don’t have enough protective equipment, and various other items (e.g. swabs) have been in short supply. Shipments of equipment ordered by states have been seized by the feds without warning. Vulnerable populations in prisons and ICE detention centers haven’t been adequately protected. Farmers have dumped millions of gallons of milk and plowed crops under while food banks face epic demand (though a new USDA program promises a degree of relief to both). And hundreds of millions of dollars intended for small business loans went to large corporations.
Clearly, Trump bears much of the blame. He partially dismantled the U.S. pandemic preparedness apparatus, weakening its ability to mount a timely and effective response. He ignored early warnings about pandemics in general and Covid19 in particular, said the virus would just go away (he’s still saying it), and dithered for two months. The travel ban on China was of limited effectiveness because almost 40,000 people (mostly U.S. citizens) came here from China after it went into effect. Besides, by then the virus was already here.
Trump accused healthcare workers of stealing supplies, doled out medical equipment like it was political patronage, fired the nation’s inspector general tasked with overseeing the stimulus package, pushed an untested cure with potentially fatal side effects, mused about injecting disinfectants into coronavirus patients, and rejected the CDC’s advice on how to safely reopen the economy. He claimed unlimited authority but declined to use it, instead telling the governors that they’re on their own. Despite his endless self-congratulation, his epitaph will likely be “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
But Trump isn’t the whole story. There are other issues that must be addressed if we are to avoid a repeat when the next infectious disease comes along.
One of these is a distrust of scientists. Many Americans have more faith in their favorite pundits than in reputable climate scientists or epidemiologists, whom they see as part of a liberal cabal. Hopefully, when this is over, it’ll be obvious that scientists are a better source of scientific information than are the likes of Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh.
Another is a reluctance to deal with impending threats that haven’t yet affected our daily lives. As with 911, warning lights were blinking red, but few paid attention. Success in defeating past infectious diseases — SARS, MERS, bird flu, swine flu, Ebola — bred complacency.
So, for example, we failed to stockpile a sufficient quantity of certain medical supplies, and we continued to import much of what we’d need to fight a pandemic, thus remaining vulnerable to anything that might disrupt the global supply chain — like, say, a pandemic. In 2018 a maintenance contract on stockpiled ventilators was allowed to lapse, resulting in more than 2,000 units reportedly becoming unusable.
Also not helpful is the worship of unregulated markets and the related distrust of government. Once the virus hit, instead of taking control of the production and distribution of medical supplies, Trump told governors to obtain them on their own. That prompted bidding wars that drove up the cost of some items more than tenfold.
Or consider the story of the low-cost ventilators that never were. In 2009 the government entered into a contract with a California firm to design an inexpensive ventilator that would require less training to use than existing machines. A successful prototype was developed, but a larger company that makes the costlier, more complicated machines bought the firm and killed the project. So much for the idea that market forces invariably produce the best outcome.
And then there’s the combination of our patchwork health insurance system with grotesque economic inequality. Millions didn’t have health insurance to begin with; millions more lost it when they were laid off. And many Americans — often the same ones who are uninsured or underinsured — live one paycheck away from financial disaster. They’re more likely to have pre-existing conditions that make them highly vulnerable, and less likely to see a doctor when they need to, to have the option of working from home, or to have enough physical space or financial resources to effectively self-quarantine. Yet it turns out that these people are the backbone of our economy.
The lessons are obvious. We need a president who’s experienced, competent, and capable of unifying the country. We need a well-funded and staffed public health infrastructure, including a comprehensive, detailed pandemic preparedness and response plan and a government willing to implement it. We need larger stockpiles of things like N95 masks; it’s obscene to ask healthcare workers to risk their lives while denying them protective equipment. And the lowest-paid workers deserve more than applause. They, too, need access to protective equipment, along with a living wage and healthcare. If “we’re all in this together” turns out to be just a feel-good slogan we’ll have learned nothing.
Tom Gutowski earned degrees in economics and history before entering the insurance industry, from which he retired a few years ago.