Flunking the COVID Test


The halting and uncertain response to COVID in the US is a tragic civic embarrassment.    While other countries have snuffed out the Covid-19 virus, the US seems to be grinding on toward 200 thousand deaths despite flinging trillions of dollars at the problem.  As summer approaches, the US shows every sign of declaring victory long before the foe has left the field.  Americans may be losing interest in COVID but COVID has not lost interest in us.  

What happened?   Several trillion in lost economic output, massive dislocation of American families and disgraceful disparities in health risks based on race and socioeconomic level all point to a breakdown in a key civic function. No readily deployable testing capability, critical shortages of protective gear, unappreciated and unresolved conflicts between federal and state health authorities, and critical failures in our core federal public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all played a role.  In retrospect, it is clear that US public health effort- $93 billion in spending in 2018, or 2.4% of total health spending, for a population of 327 million people- was grossly inadequate for the magnitude of societal risk. We spend nearly eight times as much on the military.   

Successful public health requires social solidarity and trust both in science and in government.  All are in short supply.  Early statements from political leaders about how this is no worse than the common cold or the flu and was going to “just go away”,  and the fact that the initial wave was concentrated in greater New York (New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, etc.) helped lower the national sense of urgency.   

Aggressive early testing would have been confirmed that the disease was, basically, already everywhere in the country by late March, and was not, in fact, just a “Blue State problem”. The failure to deploy testing early led to a far more destructive and costly national economic shutdown than was necessary; the economic cost of a “flash depression” could have been avoided with better planning and more decisive leadership. 

But in those parts of the country initially grazed by the pandemic, an uglier reality surfaced. It was not merely a failure of leadership that hurt us but a failure of followership as well.  As protests against lockdowns proliferated, the signs told the story.  ““My Rights Don’t End Where Your Fear Starts” read one.  “Liberty for Safety- No Deal” read another.  But a sign at a “Re-open Tennessee” rally in Nashville in late April said it all in just three words:  “Sacrifice the Weak”, a jarringly un-American sentiment if ever there was one.     

In addition to underestimating their own risks, and failing to embrace measures that reduced risks for others, many of those initially spared the virus rationalized that the immediate and tangible costs to them of COVID countermeasures far exceeded the costs to others of an unchecked pandemic.  Those “others” were probably going to die anyway (e.g. older folks, people with chronic disease risks like diabetes, workers in meat processing plants, etc.) in some other part of the country that they didn’t care about. It is easy at a distance to dismiss the reality that the typical COVID fatality lost an average of eleven years of life expectancy!

Thanks to all of this, we are likely not in a second wave but rather a continuation of the pandemic in parts of the country spared the first wave.   Eighteen  states, including Texas, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and California,  saw increased COVID caseload over the past week.  Leaders in many states will be extremely reluctant to backtrack, and recommit their states to aggressive social distancing, which, again, would not have been necessary if they were well enough organized to test, trace and isolate- the three keys to an effective response to a viral threat.  

And it simply isn’t as if a coherent public response to this threat was impossible. Other countries (New Zealand-22 deaths, Taiwan-seven deaths, Hong Kong- four deaths) succeeded in surmounting this threat while we failed.   It’s not that the sacrifices demanded in their citizens were somehow less onerous than those that were demanded of us Americans.  What these countries did in common:  rapid diagnosis of a major threat, decisive action to sever all (not just ideologically indicated) international arrivals, universal and uncompromising lockdowns, aggressive scaling up of testing, mobility tracking and follow up.    Most of these countries were also smaller in population, had decisive executive leadership willing to take political risks and showed broad-based respect for authority in the face of the crisis.

Even though this crisis is far from over, the next pandemic is a “when”, not an “if”.  Obvious ingredients of a successful response to the next pandemic include:  multi-level planning for rapidly scalable viral testing, a secure medical supply chain,  generous stockpiles of protective gear, an agreed-upon protocol for care system deployment (to protect ongoing health care functions and workers), recruitment and training protocols for emergency workers and contact tracers and assignment of responsibility for covering high risk “hot spots” such as nursing homes, distribution facilities and food processing plants.  A thorough going and bipartisan review of the Centers for Disease Control  and a commitment to increase federal as well as state and local public health funding is also essential

In a functioning country, these would be achievable steps.   However, logical planning and decisive action may be too great a lift for a fractured, angry and distracted nation.  Two key functions- public health and law enforcement- appear to have lost legitimacy with broad swatches of the public.  Our largest political party seems to be the “Are You Kidding Me?” Party.     A failed state cannot protect its citizens against much of anything.  

A society riven increasingly by tribal resentments, fear and suspicion of any leadership is a society at risk.  The failure of the US to respond effectively to the COVID emergency is ominous, because it has shown societal divisions deep enough to paralyze the country from responding to other threats, be the other emerging diseases, a deep economic downturn, aggressive and unprincipled foreign adventurers, or terrorism foreign or domestic.   

 In the Congo, a comprehensively “failed state” if ever there was one, the unofficial national motto is:  “Débrouillez Vous”, loosely translated as “Figure it out yourself”.  This cannot be where we end up.   It seems so obvious that if we are to be an actual country,  we need to take better care of one another, and that we are stronger as a country if we trust one another and work together to address our common challenges.  

Jeff Goldsmith, Ph.D. is a health policy analyst based in Charlottesville Virginia and President, Health Futures Inc.  

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