There can never be any 'bipartisan reckoning' over this country's COVID-19 pandemic failure
The American death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic is now nearly a hundred times the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and is on track to far exceed that number by the end of this winter. As a result, and in light of the looming change in administration, a number of sincere and well-meaning individuals are calling for a retrospective examination of the policy “missteps” and outright failures that contributed to this wholly avoidable human catastrophe.
William Haseltine, former Harvard Medical School professor, president of ACCESS Health International, and trustee of the Brookings Institution, and John R. Allen, the president of the same Brookings think tank, are two such individuals. They have authored a new piece in The Atlantic titled “America Needs a COVID-19 Reckoning.”
It does indeed, but probably not the kind they suggest.
The authors’ premise hangs on the fact that, after the 9/11 attacks, both of our major political parties sought answers as to how such a shocking thing could have possibly occurred. Hence, what became known as the 9/11 Commission was created with the consent of the Bush administration to assemble what was known about the attacks, draw appropriate, informed conclusions, and make specific policy recommendations in order to forestall the possibility of future terrorist attacks. Haseltine and Allen recommend the creation of a similar commission to examine the COVID-19 pandemic. At the outset, the authors acknowledge that “(t)he nation’s responses to these two threats—one a palpable and immediate terrorist attack; the other a virus that crossed our borders sight unseen—have been wildly divergent.”
Their essay in The Atlantic offers their recommendations.
(Biden’s) newly announced COVID-19 task force will rightly focus on helping the United States find a way out of our current morass. But the country also needs a separate, bipartisan inquiry that points to long-term structural solutions that would prevent a future disease from causing the levels of death, heartache, and economic disruption that the coronavirus has caused. If the new Democratic president and Republicans in Congress can agree on nothing else, surely they can agree on the need to learn from Americans’ current suffering.
Unfortunately, it is the last sentence in that paragraph that is fatal to Haseltine and Allen’s entire premise. Whatever mistakes, unforced errors, or deliberate lapses in judgment characterized the Bush administration’s failure to anticipate or stop the attacks that occurred on Sept. 11—and there were many such failures—none of them resembles or is even remotely comparable to the deliberate malfeasance that characterized the behavior of the Trump administration and its allies in the Republican Party toward the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By relying on the 9/11 analogy, these authors appear to assume that structural failures within the U.S. government itself—“lack of coordination among government agencies,” for example—are at fault for our current situation … where hospitals and hospital staff are now being overwhelmed beyond their capacities in coping with the influx of COVID-19-infected patients. In support of their position that a similar response is warranted now, they point to a proposal drafted this past April by Rep. Adam Schiff, tentatively titled the ”National Commission on the COVID–19 Pandemic in the United States Act.”
Haseltine and Allen note, in passing, that the commission proposed by Schiff is strongly modeled on the 9/11 Commission, except that the “nominating process for the new panel would be more overtly partisan.” They warn that this aspect of Schiff’s commission should be modified, because “(f)or a COVID-19 commission to succeed, it needs bipartisan support from the beginning; its purpose must be to move beyond blame and seek long-range solutions to America’s vulnerability to disease.”
Throughout the course of this pandemic, politics has been an obstacle to public-health initiatives. A true accounting of what led us to our situation today—where the U.S. ranks among the 10 worst countries in the world on a deaths-per-capita and infections-per-capita basis—requires an honest assessment of our failures, politics and party aside.
Haseltine and Allen then list a litany of actions that such a “bipartisan” commission could take, such as interviewing officials from the National Military Center for Military Medical Intelligence (which determined the existence of, and reported, the virus in November 2019), as well determining what was known by the CDC, the national security adviser, and other federal, state and local officials early on in the pandemic. In sum, “(t)he COVID-19 commission should analyze resource-allocation blunders, potential failures of oversight by the White House and Congress, and the inability of the federal government to leverage its full weight to combat the disease.”
The questioning should sidestep the politics of the moment—as members of the 9/11 Commission tried to do—and focus firmly instead on what the nation could have done better. As with the 9/11 terror attacks, the coronavirus pandemic is not the result of a single misstep.
It’s true that think-tankers are paid to “think,” and to follow-up with proposals based on such “thinking.” However, it helps when the things they propose have some grounding in reality. With regard to this nation’s disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of ”‘what could the nation have done better?” simply cannot be separated from “the politics of the moment.” In fact, the failure of this nation to contain, control, and reverse the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not due to any structural impediments or failure of preparedness in this country. It was due to a conscious political strategy, on the part of the Trump administration, to deceive the American public about the pandemic’s likely severity, and to deliberately hamstring whatever infrastructure existed that could have impeded the virus’ spread.
Yes, those decisions were based entirely on political considerations, specifically the overriding imperative of Donald Trump’s reelection prospects. Those decisions were also wholeheartedly supported by the vast majority of elected Republican officials, both within the administration itself and in the halls of Congress. The fear was that the economic consequences of mandatory lockdowns and business closures would doom Trump’s reelection chances, and with those chances, the fate of those who supported him. Accordingly, medical experts and scientists were deliberately sidelined, ignored, or worse, demoted or castigated by the administration. The entire federal response was essentially abandoned in favor of forcing cash-strapped and inexperienced state governments to shoulder the burden themselves, requiring them to compete with each other in bidding to obtain adequate protective equipment.
Meanwhile, those same state efforts were deliberately undercut by the administration’s political messaging, which ridiculed or otherwise denied the efficiency of social distancing measures, excoriated state governments for imposing business closures, and cast the entire issue of public health and safety in terms of personal “freedom” and convenience. False statements regarding the spread and virulence of the pandemic were issued directly from the administration, over and over, then amplified by right-wing media and Republican governors and local legislatures until vast numbers of the public simply refused to believe that the pandemic was a deadly serious matter. Economic aid to states and individuals was timed to expire with the November elections, and the federal response once the election was over—as we now see—was essentially nonexistent.
The politicization of the pandemic by Trump and Republican officials is the sole reason why we are now faced with the deadliest winter in our nation’s history. It has nothing to do with our nation’s infrastructure, a lack of resources to combat the pandemic, or, as the authors suggest, any failure of communication between existing agencies. These are all factors which could have been easily and swiftly addressed at the very start of the pandemic, had there been the political will to do it, and specifically had there been pressure applied by the Republican Party. That there was no such effort made is not even a valid criticism of our existing public health infrastructure, because it ignores what has been blatantly obvious from the outset: The consequences of this pandemic are a result of a conscious political choice by the Republican Party to support Donald Trump, even if it meant more Americans dying as a result.
The authors have many good suggestions, such as coordinating the efforts of DHS and the Director of National Intelligence, the establishment of a body on par with the National Security Council, but devoted to disease prevention, and even the creation of a Cabinet position “to develop a “pandemic-preparedness program.” All of these ideas are useful, but it does not take a commission to have anticipated the need for them. This administration has had nearly a year to have taken such actions. Instead, it chose, for political reasons, to do nothing. Even today, as the pandemic enters its deadliest phase, there is no sign that Republicans view the pandemic as a serious matter deserving of institutional reforms. To the contrary, they continue to view it as a political football, not a public health emergency.
The bottom line? No inquiry into why this tragedy occurred can possibly “sidestep” the reality that it is the result of a deliberate political calculation by the outgoing president, made with the assent and complicity of the Republican party. No bipartisan “9/11-style Commission” will ever be able to sweep that basic fact under the rug.