Once again, we didn’t do enough to respond to a threat that the experts saw coming in advance. And, now we are paying the price.
Experts have long seen a coronavirus-like pandemic as a threat. In January 2019, Daniel Coats, then the director of national intelligence, warned that “the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, [and] strain international resources.”
In September 2018, Anthony S. Fauci, our nation’s leading expert on infectious pathogens, told CBS News that “the thing most threatening to us . . . would be something that spread widely, generally a respiratory infection, something that has a high degree of morbidity and mortality.”
And, just last year, the Trump administration ran a pandemic exercise simulating a severe influenza pandemic for which there was no vaccine.
The draft conclusions said the United States was underprepared for a pandemic and was disorganized to deal with one. It said the country didn’t have the capacity to manufacture personal protective equipment, needles and syringes, pointing out that these supplies, along with antiviral medications, respirators and ventilators, would be “limited and difficult to restock.”
And, yet, we did not act on these warnings.
We did not have a strategy on mitigation to reduce the threat of a pathogen. And we did not have a companion strategy on preparation — a plan and pre-outbreak set of actions to get ready for a pandemic to minimize the human and economic costs if mitigation failed.
The Trump administration’s initial choices made this worse, but this failing does not just rest with them.
Yes, they could have moved much faster once the virus appeared; yes, President Trump could have accepted the advice from his experts sooner; and yes, his team could have acted on the pandemic exercise results.
But the blame must be shared with every administration over the past 20 years.
What has not happened this year is a stark reminder of what didn’t happen in the lead-up to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Despite repeated strategic warnings over a number of years by the CIA that Osama bin Laden was coming after us, little action was taken to degrade al-Qaeda. Yes, 9/11 was a tactical intelligence failure — in that the intelligence community did not know in advance the time, place or method — but it was also a policy failure, again by multiple administrations.
Our failure this time will be much more costly than 9/11. A projection from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported in the New York Times, assessed that, in a worst-case scenario absent mitigation efforts, “between 160 million and 214 million people in the United States could be infected over the course of an epidemic,” which could last months or even more than a year. The Times article went on to say that “as many as 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die.” For context, around 400,000 Americans died during World War II. While the CDC reportedly is developing more sophisticated models showing how recent mitigations might decrease the worst-case numbers, their projections have not been made public. Even a best case would likely still leave hundreds of thousands dead.
Why are we like this — reacting to events rather getting in front of threats? It may be cultural, in that we feel we can succeed against trials put in front of us, so why prepare? It may be political in that our leaders don’t think they can make the public case for drastic action before a threat becoming a reality. It may just be human instinct: we tend to worry most about what is right in front us.
Whatever its roots, we must overcome the tendency to under-prepare for threats that we can clearly see — as there are many more of them out there. The most obvious and most important for sure is climate change, about which we and the world continue to avoid the necessary mitigation strategies.
But, the list also includes the growing risk of nuclear war driven by the fraying of long-standing U.S.-Russian nuclear agreements, as well as the ongoing lack of economic opportunity that is putting American democracy and capitalism at risk.
We need to do everything we can to support those on the front lines who are saving us from the coronavirus. But we also need to consider it a wake-up call for us to change, to act more decisively on the warnings we receive.