Today, faced with another crisis, we need to think strategically not only about how to address the virus but also about how the United States can come out stronger on the other side. We all know this won’t be the last time we confront a pandemic. But it should be the last time a public health emergency provokes an economic depression. We need to prepare for tomorrow, starting today.
There is a premium on immediate mobilization. In contrast to President Trump’s denial and delay, our approach in 2009 was swift and sweeping. But our aim then wasn’t just to stave off depression — it was also to address underlying weaknesses moving forward. Our bailouts came with strings attached. We insisted that financial firms maintain bigger cash reserves and that the auto industry bite the bullet on reforms they’d long postponed.
In that spirit, we need to use this crisis to fix our public health system, our medical infrastructure and our industrial capacity. Trump may be outmatched by the moment, but the rest of the United States can rise to meet this crisis.
South Korea wasn’t properly prepared for severe acute respiratory syndrome five years ago, but Seoul used that failing to prepare, and it shows. The U.S. health system, by contrast, may be unusually advanced, but its public health components lag far behind. Despite years of warnings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an annual budget of a mere $6.5 billion. Trump’s tax cut for the financial industry amounted to $32 billion per year. At the time, Republicans argued that the tax cuts were designed to drive growth. Now look where we are.
Here’s an alternative strategy:
First, let’s finally make the investment in public health that’s been so lacking. To get ahead of the next pandemic, we need to invest not only in the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration but also the National Institutes of Health, which funds the research behind new medicines and vaccines. Former vice president Joe Biden led a moonshot for cancer; it’s time we embrace the same approach for a much broader range of infectious and other diseases, funding not only the research but also the scientists and laboratory teams that can unlock their secrets.
Second, we’ve ignored too many of our infrastructure needs for too long. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the many ways in which the U.S. medical grid is unready to meet the challenges of a fully globalized world. We need a much more robust network of critical care and emergency care facilities, with special emphasis on intensive care units, that can be stood up and put in place overnight. We should have a surge capacity that doubles our available hospital bed capacity. And we need a new rapid deployment force of trained medical “reservists” who can switch from their regular jobs to providing the manpower that makes these surge units operational.
Third, despite all the double talk coming from the White House, it is clear our strategic supply chain is inadequate. As demonstrated by the frustrating struggle to produce the ventilators, masks and other equipment that health-care workers need in this crisis, we must continue to make investments in re-industrializing the United States. For years, plants and industries have migrated offshore in search of cheaper labor. While diminished trade barriers have played some role in that shift, the search for lower production costs eroded our industrial capacity. We now have technology that allows Americans to compete on price with more distant economies.
All of this is to say, again, that Washington needs to make sure this crisis doesn’t go to waste. Previous crisis investments paid off in ways we sometimes neglect to appreciate. Today’s bank reserves were created by the financial reforms passed after 2008. Hospitals today are drawing supplies from a strategic reserve President Bill Clinton created in 1999. The Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped establish the backbone of today’s telemedicine system.
Our focus today shouldn’t simply be to defeat this virus — which we’ll do. We need to leverage this challenge to ensure that the United States is poised to defeat the next virus, and the one after that, and still win globally for the next several decades.