The COVID hearing made clear: We still have a lot to learn about pandemic preparedness 

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One would never know it from watching last week’s hearings of the House Select Subcommittee House on the Coronavirus Pandemic, but there are grave, if not existential, questions about America’s pandemic response that must be addressed to secure our future.  

For starters: 

1) How could a nation whose capacity to manage a pandemic was ranked No.1 in the world on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic have so mismanaged the disease that it later ranked worst in both infection rates and fatalities? 

2) Why was a pandemic lethal enough to kill more than one in 300 Americans — more than in all our wars combined — treated not as a threat to national security but as a public health emergency to be handled at the state and local levels? In other words, why was an effort described as a “war” by presidents, elected officials and public health officials across the country never treated as such? 

3) Perhaps most important in a practical sense, shouldn’t there be a clearly defined understanding and communication of who is in charge of what during a pandemic? If so, why were lines of authority never clarified, and why were communications garbled from the outset? 

Last week’s hearings never even approached those important questions and others. Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) refusing to call Dr. Anthony Fauci a doctor. “You’re a mister, not a doctor,” she cried, while displaying a photo of beagle puppies. If you’re waiting for responsible answers from that committee, don’t hold your breath.  

Congress has refused to empanel a 9/11-style commission to engage in what the Covid Crisis Group has called a “deep rethink of the way Americans organize and connect our haphazard system of healthcare, public health, practical policymaking, risk communication, medical countermeasures, and global defenses.” Last week’s committee food fight is the clearest evidence that it is incapable of undertaking the effort itself. 

Fortunately, thoughtful approaches are being pursued.  

The Covid Crisis Group’s report from last year, “Lessons from the Covid War,” remains the most comprehensive overview of the nation’s pandemic response and the lessons to be learned from it. The fundamental takeaway from the analysis is that many of the successful interventions were the result of “heroic improvisations” that need not be lost but can “instead become our new foundation, for our country and the rest of the world, where many others learned lessons as well.”  

The report’s recommendations range from the advance development of proto-vaccines for the few dozen viruses that can infect human beings, so that targeted vaccine development can be accelerated, to enhancing disease surveillance and testing capacity, to designating a lead federal department or office as a “focal point of operational leadership in a government department with stable appropriations.” The group recommends the creation of a new undersecretary of health security, with Health and Human Services to lead the effort. 

“Lessons from the Covid War” should be studied in tandem with the only (as of this writing) comprehensive and independent state report on the pandemic, commissioned by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.  

The product of an 18-month review of the work of 31 state agencies involved in the pandemic response, focusing on the leading responders from the office of the governor, the Department of Health, and the Office of Emergency Management, the 900-page report’s fact findings and recommendations should resonate with other states and prompt others to undertake similar state-specific reviews.

The report is meticulous in its parsing of the evolving data, responsible in its comparison of New Jersey’s response to the responses in other states, and sensible in making recommendations that are achievable. Like the Covid Study Group report, many of the recommendations in New Jersey’s independent review endorse making permanent the improvised relationships and approaches that evolved in managing COVID-19.  

Read together, these two reports shame Congress’s failure to establish a comprehensive national assessment. (Indeed, “Lessons from the Covid War” was undertaken and ultimately written to underscore the need for a national commission assessment.) The reports demonstrate that credible after-action studies can be undertaken without 20/20 hindsight or scapegoating.  

Most important, the reports highlight the risk of a more severe pandemic or other crisis, should the flaws in our response not be addressed. Does anyone believe that a unified command will be established? Is anyone more certain today of who is in charge of what when zero hour comes? 

In 2011, the Bipartisan Policy Center, commenting on the failure of government agencies at all levels to adopt a Unified Command for complex crises like Katrina as recommended by the 9/11 Commission, concluded: “A decade after 9/11, the nation is not yet prepared for a truly catastrophic disaster.” In 2020, that “truly catastrophic disaster” struck, proving the center prescient, to the tune of over a million deaths in America. And there is no momentum in Congress to create an independent commission.  

John J. Farmer, Jr. is a visiting professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a University Professor at Rutgers University. He is the former director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, attorney general of New Jersey and senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission.  He is the author of “The Ground Truth” and “Way Too Fast: An American Reckoning.”

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