As the new coronavirus casts a frightening shadow across the nation and the world, it is glaringly obvious how poorly prepared we are for the pandemic – despite many warnings we should have heeded over the past two decades. Perhaps we will again escape without catastrophic consequences, although that is by no means certain.
If we do, it will largely be a function of lucky circumstance. But we may not be so lucky again. And there are many things that a competent and intelligent government can do – could have done – to prevent the worst.
Competent and intelligent government is not what exists in Washington now. We know that not only because everything President Donald Trump has said about COVID-19 is precisely false, or because the Trump administration has screwed up the simplest preparations for its spread, but because two years ago, this president dismantled the agencies created by his predecessor after the Ebola outbreak to cope with a future medical crisis.
Now, of course, Trump insists that former President Barack Obama is somehow to blame for his own government’s flawed response. We can only pray that veteran officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security and state public health agencies around the country can bring this situation under control before tens of thousands or more are endangered.
So far the federal officials who must deal with the present crisis have neglected to take some very basic steps. For instance, as Elisabeth Benjamin of New York’s Community Service Society has pointed out, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar could require all federally regulated insurance plans to cover coronavirus testing and treatment without co-payments of any kind, encouraging people to get tested without fear of cost. Unsurprisingly, the useless Azar has failed to take that kind of action.
But what if we were to have a federal government capable of something more than a pathetic, inadequate and self-serving tweet? What if we were to have a president who understands that wasting billions more on the military is far less valuable than building a robust defense against pandemic disease?
That kind of president would reconstruct the nation’s public health systems, renewing their depth and resilience. Such a president would propose legislation providing billions of dollars to local hospital systems for training all staff in how to prevent infection; for stockpiling effective masks, protective gowns, mechanical ventilators and related devices; and for ensuring additional bed space in case of national emergency. At the moment, the Trump administration’s health policies have imposed additional stress and costs on hospitals. We need a government that supports public health capacity.
But Americans also need a government that can learn from this crisis and conceive creative solutions to the emerging problems. At the moment, hospital executives are rightly concerned that as more people are infected – or merely fear infection – they will crowd emergency rooms, potentially endangering hospital staff and one another. Some experts have suggested it would be far safer and more efficient to bring testing into affected neighborhoods in mobile units, operated by personnel in protective gear, speedily serving thousands of patients and getting them into care or quarantine right away if necessary.
A sane government would likewise bolster our foreign assistance and monitoring agencies, working in cooperation with other governments to detect and forestall dangerous disease vectors before they can leap oceans and deserts into our homes. That was how the Obama administration was able to mobilize a successful international crusade to stop Ebola.
Today, of course, the shortsighted imbeciles in power complain about “globalists” and seek to destroy those programs. And in the same demagogic fashion, they warn against any universal health insurance program that might cover undocumented workers and their families – as if it’s better to deprive them of care, rather than ensure that they don’t spread a pandemic illness.
We need to stop being so stupid. We must ask all candidates for president how they will deal with the next global medical threat, and judge their answers according to reality, not ideology. Whatever happens in this awful moment, we know one thing: A pandemic is going to happen again.