On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID 19 a pandemic, fundamentally altering every aspect of our daily lives. Over the past year, I have witnessed how governments on the federal, state, and local levels responded to this virus (and written about it here, here, and here). I am not a scientist, M.D., or public health “expert.” I’m a journalist who has covered the federal public health bureaucracy since the AIDS pandemic spread in the 1980s.
Once the coronavirus was officially branded as a pandemic, the Trump administration soon responded with its “15 days to slow the spread” guidelines. From there, every governor and mayor who had emergency powers started to close schools, beaches, parks, restaurants and decide which businesses shall live and which could die. Some states like California responded with a high level of restrictions, while others like Florida were more relaxed in order to prioritize the economy and try to preserve some semblance of normalcy. Reporting has suggested that there is little difference between high and low levels of restrictions, but only time will tell what has the appropriate extent of government intervention.
The pandemic is still with us, but in the coming months, the nation will reach herd immunity through mass-vaccination. As society begins to return to the so-called “new normal,” we must do everything we can to learn from this collective trauma. As such, I think a bipartisan 9/11-style commission must convene to look back on the pandemic, investigate any instances of government mismanagement, and propose a set of recommendations to prevent this mess from happening again.
Both sides of the aisle have much to gain from such a commission. The Democrats will be able to investigate the failure of the pandemic given it occurred under a GOP administration. The GOP can look into vaccine distribution in major, Dem-controlled urban centers, and more specific scandals like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s handling of nursing home numbers.
With that being, said here are some areas such a commission should review:
The Role of China
COVID-19 is not the only pandemic to origination from China. The 1918 Spanish Flu which killed roughly 50 million also originated from China as well. In fact, China was the source of the 1958 pandemic, the 1968 “Hong Kong Flu,” the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the H5N1 Avian Flu outbreak in 2008.
Thorough reporting has thus far dispelled conspiracy theories that the virus originated in a Communist-controlled laboratory, but the Chinese government is still culpable. Just like in past pandemics, there are copious amounts of evidence that the party downplayed the severity of the virus by manipulating numbers and effectively pulling the wool over the eyes of WHO and the global community.
In my opinion, the world needs to exact reparations from China and demand it shut down wet markets, and if necessary, exterminate the horseshoe bat population, which transmitted COVID to pangolins and then to humans. A bipartisan commission should investigate if, and how, China can be held financially liable for this crisis. All nations impacted by COVID need reparations.
Should We Allow Broad-based Lockdowns or Focused ‘Mitigation’?
According to studies released in January from nonpartisan journals, sweeping lockdowns to handle a pandemic were shown to do more harm than good. Yes, social distancing and mask-wearing were effective to a certain degree, but closing some businesses while allowing others created a fragmented approach that had severe consequences for jobs and people’s health.
This is especially true in poor, densely-packed communities. The data doesn’t lie – blacks and Latinos and poor whites (i.e. Orthodox Jews in New York and New Jersey) were hit hard by the pandemic at greater rates than their share of the U.S. population It’s largely because these groups have higher rates of underlying health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and respiratory illnesses, live in dense housing situations, and hold essential jobs where they cannot work remotely. But targeted “mitigation” to use Fauci’s word might be useful – especially with nursing homes, which accounted for 40% of COVID deaths.
It would seem to me that given the controversy about the lockdowns and handling of long-term care facilities, this bipartisan commission should scrutinize whether they worked and determine best practices for keeping informed people safe in a pandemic.
Should Air Travel Be Shut Down More Completely, Including Domestic Travel?
Trump was wise for stopping all Chinese airlines from traveling to the U.S. on Jan. 31. However, he did not stop all holders of China passports from traveling to the U.S. via other airlines. The European Union, too, acted way too late to bar travel from China, and the results show (especially in Spain and Northern Italy). Allowing entrants from infected areas should have been coupled with contact tracing, which to my knowledge, was not done with the estimated 452,000 Americans who traveled to and from China prior to the planes being shut down by Trump.
Other countries such as Australia, for example, were able to effectively close down the borders between its territories to slow down the spread of the virus across the nation. Compared to other OECD countries, Australia has experienced lower infection and death rates than most, with just 27,912 confirmed cases and 908 deaths as of December 1, 2020. Of course, this is due to a variety of factors, but the nation’s ability to limit citizen travel played a key role.
A bipartisan commission needs to investigate how the nation failed to adequately contact trace these early entries and the role of air and cruise travel in spreading communicable diseases. It also should tackle the thorny issue of whether travel should be barred from one heavily impacted region (i.e. New York) to the rest of the country. Examining best practices from countries like Australia, and South Korea, which had early testing, would be a great start.
Should Governors, Mayors Have Less Absolute Power Over Pandemic Responses?
The lockdowns were pioneered in, Santa Clara County, CA, in early March 2020 and were based on post-9/11 bioterrorism response plans, which called for people “sheltering in place” in case a chemical or biological agent was in the atmosphere. California became the first state to use this model and other states followed to slow the spread.
The governors had the absolute power to decide which businesses or schools should remain open under their state emergency management laws, which were intended to deal with floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. But shouldn’t the elected legislatures and city councils be allowed to review closures every 30 days and have the option to overrule the chief executive?
Perhaps this commission needs to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop model state and local laws on pandemic response and examine giving a role to legislatures and city councils to review mitigation measures ever so often, especially in pandemics that can last longer than the impact from a hurricane.
It is usually standard operating procedure in a pandemic or outbreak to have a consistent message, and if the officials can’t answer a question they should not speculate. In this day of instant news and social media gossiping, it is vital for all parties (federal agencies, White House, states, etc.) to be on the same page in communication.
It was very bad that Trump downplayed the pandemic in order to not, in his words, “create a panic.” His touting of specific treatments backfired. He was on TV daily just to be seen and show the country he was in charge; however, neither he nor Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health officials were consistent with their public messaging. This bred a lot of confusion and mistrust, essentially passing the buck to state and local governments. Trump lost re-election, in part due to his handling of COVID-19.
A bipartisan commission should examine how communication needs to be more consistent from administration officials. Perhaps there should be a single source of contact for the media at least for TV and major media – and it should not be a politician like the president or vice president.
National Strategic Stockpile Should Never Be Depleted
Reports show that the National Strategic Stockpile was not adequately supplied with drugs and devices to handle a pandemic when the COVID crisis began in March 2020. As a result, the federal government in March was playing catchup on obtaining masks and ventilators and gave them to the governors who screamed the loudest, like Andrew Cuomo of New York. Meanwhile, people in the other infected areas – especially rural communities – were often left without such gear. There should not be competition among states to get personal protective equipment and other needed materials for hospitals and clinics.
The Defense Production Act proved helpful in mass-producing masks, surgical gloves, and ventilators, but there needs to be a better means to stockpile vital medical devices and drugs before a pandemic hit. A bipartisan commission needs to examine that carefully, in order to adequately prepare us for the future.
Bringing U.S. Medical Product Manufacturing Stateside
This was one of President Trump’s priorities before the pandemic, but it never came to pass until once the pandemic hit. The Biden Administration should continue efforts to incentivize drug and device firms to bring manufacturing back to U.S. shores, so we are less reliant on China, India, and other nations that do not have advanced regulatory and quality safeguards. The bipartisan commission can examine regulatory incentives. For example, an FDA foreign plant inspection takes but three days, but an FDA audit of a U.S.-based plant can last weeks. Regulation in the U.S. is one reason for drug-device manufacturing moving offshore.
Should the Public Health Service, Particularly CDC, Be Restructured?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was, in my view, the main failure in the U.S. response to the pandemic. From blocking states from devising their own tests to not looking at past experience with emerging infectious diseases from China and devising, conflicting school reopening guidelines, the 25,000-plus employee agency needs better direction. A bipartisan commission perhaps working with the specific oversight committees of Congress, should examine an overhaul, along with other Public Health Service agencies like the FDA and NIH.
Mass Media Accountability
If a 9/11-style commission is empaneled, it should also look at the role of the media in spreading falsehoods, false hopes, and negating medicines that could have been helpful. This ranged from the pros of cons of using masks and the use of questionable medical treatments such as hydroxychloroquine.
But let’s be real: many media outlets report what it gets from the government, scientists, and P.R. people from industry and advocacy groups. This bipartisan commission can look at some examples of how the media gave misleading or conflicting information, but the panel should examine where the media got the information from the first place and if it was “placed” by some P.R. hand or politico with an agenda.
Vaccine Review and Distribution Must Be Improved
The data from Pfizer’s Phase III trial was known in early November, yet the FDA required an advisory panel review, which delayed final emergency use authorization by weeks. Meanwhile, the UK’s counterpart to FDA did a “rolling review” and had the Pfizer vaccine out weeks earlier. Similar advisory committee reviews with the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots delayed their distribution, too. As we tragically discovered, every week that vaccine distribution was prolonged more and more Americans died. We must reexamine the process of vaccine approval to see if there is any unnecessary red tape that could be eliminated, especially in a pandemic.
In addition, the distribution of vaccines to state-run vaccination sites slowed vaccination. The Trump administration deserves credit for getting a vaccine in the middle of the pandemic (usually, these developed after pandemics are over), but it should have utilized the Defense Production Act in other areas besides testing kits and protective equipment. The process of administrating vaccines to the nation is a logistical nightmare and the DPA could have been utilized to provide other necessary items like refrigerators to store vaccines.
By thoroughly examining what our national response lacked, a bipartisan commission should be to devise improved methods for vaccine distribution in a pandemic so inoculations can be administered more widely to people through primary care doctors and pharmacies.
In conclusion, I am sure there are other areas worth review. In addition to everything mentioned above, such a commission would no doubt highlight many of our preexisting problems such as how to seriously tackle other chronic conditions, expand community health centers, and the economic monopolization of Big Tech. Nevertheless, we as a nation have a vested interest in knowing how to prevent such hardship from returning. We must follow the facts without partaking in frivolous political finger-pointing.
One day, whether it is a global pandemic, a natural disaster, or a war, our country will need to mobilize in a coordinated, precise way. It is not a question of if, but when. As of right now, we are not ready for such a scenario. We must do everything in our power to make sure we are.