How America Lost the COVID-19 War

5 minute read
Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the former Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission. Lessons From the Covid War by the Covid Crisis Group publishes this week.

The United States government has decided it is time to declare a formal end to the COVID-19 public health emergency. The end of the emergency is a time to reflect on what we have experienced and where we go from here.

For over two years, I have led the Covid Crisis Group, a group of 34 experts originally formed with the goal of helping to lay the groundwork for an inevitable (we thought) National Covid Commission. We interviewed nearly 300 people. We organized task forces. We mapped out agendas. We shared insights across our different backgrounds and did a substantial amount of research.

With an official inquiry nowhere in sight, our group felt we had to share what we have learned, in our just-published report, “Lessons from the Covid War.”

The members of our group are angry. They are angry because they feel that good Americans, all over the country, were let down by ineffective institutions, a slow and uneven initial response, shoddy defenses, and inadequate leadership. We came away from many of our discussions consistently impressed with the ingenuity and dedication of people all over the country. That is why so many of us are so frustrated. Americans improvised to fight this war, usually doing the best they could. They had to struggle with systems that made success hard and failure easy.

It is best to think of COVID as a war, the most expansive global struggle since the Second World War. The U.S. fought the COVID war without an army or a battle plan. We met a 21st century global emergency with structures fundamentally designed for 19th century problems, and it showed. Our scientific knowledge was unsurpassed. Thousands of people and organizations made heartrending, life-saving efforts. Americans spent more public money on the crisis than anyone. Yet the U.S. suffered many more casualties than any other affluent country, despite having the best access to remarkable vaccines.

The COVID war shows how our wondrous scientific knowledge has run far, far ahead of the organized human ability to apply that knowledge in practice. If we want to avoid a repetition of the catastrophe of 2020-22, we cannot ignore that the COVID war revealed a collective national incompetence in governance.

There is a common view that politics—a ‘Red response’ and a ‘Blue response’—were the main obstacle to protecting citizens, not competence and policy failures. It was more the other way around. Incompetence and policy failures, including the failure of federal executive leadership, produced bad outcomes, flying blind, and resorting to blunt instruments.

Those failures and tensions fed the toxic politics that further divided the country in a crisis rather than bringing it together. Poor communication aggravated the breakdown of public trust and confidence and undermined efforts to combat misinformation.

The one great policy success, Operation Warp Speed, is not well understood. It didn’t score its main success in high science, in vaccine research and development. Pfizer’s R&D, for example, did not need or use Operation Warp Speed. A belated initiative improvised by career bureaucrats, outside experts, and administration gadflies, Operation Warp Speed was successful by managing biopharma acquisition like a national security enterprise, with advance purchase of promising vaccines and by managing manufacturing and distribution.

We also show that this was a global war. Meeting it required global strategies and global coalitions at every stage—from prevention to warning to building and sharing countermeasures. National, ‘go it alone,’ approaches backfired both for people and for American business. Hurried global improvisations probably saved millions. Better preparation might have saved millions more.

Even before the COVID war, it seemed fair to judge that the earlier American reputation for practical public problem-solving was tarnished. This pandemic crisis is so encompassing, has touched so many communities, that, as we understand it better, surely a teachable moment has arrived.

Yet the policy agendas of both major American political parties appear almost entirely undisturbed by this pandemic. There is no momentum to recognize the failures or fix the system. Although several public health experts warned us about the usual cycle of “panic and neglect,” it still is astonishing to watch that cycle repeat once again, as we neglect lessons for not only for the next outbreak, but in our general competence to meet any great emergency

One common denominator stands out to us that spans the political spectrum. Leaders have drifted into treating this pandemic as if it were an unavoidable natural catastrophe. This way of thinking risks not only failing to reform, but also failing to remember what actually happened. As the emergency comes to an end, the greatest danger is that we rush to move on, to forget. There is historical precedent for this: the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, one of the worst pandemics in history, was the subject of a book by Alfred Crosby titled America’s Forgotten Pandemic.

Confronting bad governance with fatalistic apathy would be un-American. And it dishonors the memory of what and who we have lost—and are still losing. There will be other pandemics and other crises, possibly sooner than we can imagine. At present, the U.S. is no better prepared for those crises than it was in early 2020. The public emergency may be over. Its causes remain.

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