President Trump has repeatedly, and correctly, described the coronavirus crisis as a war. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and others across the political spectrum agree that the country is on something akin to a wartime footing. The battle against the threat from covid-19 is not a partisan issue — or at least it should not be. So let’s reexamine how war bonds contributed to our finest hours as a country and adapt that tool to this and future public health crises.
The question is not whether another health threat will materialize but when. We are in what planners call a “hundred-year event.” That does not mean it will be a hundred years before another killer virus breaks out. A different virus threat could emerge, God forbid, tomorrow. We need to build excess capacity for such crises. That’s where public health bonds come in.
I am told that Trump is very intrigued by the idea. If he gets behind “Beat the Bug” bonds — or whatever the effort is dubbed — and Democrats join in, and they are joined by all the celebrities singing on livestreams and all the athletes and talking heads commenting online, a vast bond campaign could be launched. Citizens want to help. In many ways, we need to contribute. When New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife, Brittany, pledged $5 million to help impacted communities in Louisiana, the virtual cheering was loud and sustained. Not because everyone wants to be Brees (most people want to be Baker Mayfield, I think) but because everyone wants to help, though within their means.
If Trump asked former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to lead the effort, they of course would, much as former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush agreed to lead fundraising relief efforts after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, or as Clinton and George W. Bush agreed to spearhead efforts in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Leading relief efforts is what former presidents do best. A health-bond campaign is an issue on which the talking heads on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News could actually agree.
Retired Adm. James Stavridis once told me a story on air this past week about a letter framed in his home office that was signed by Dwight Eisenhower before the Army general who led the D-Day invasion was elected president. A young girl wrote to Eisenhower, the admiral told me, and asked what she should do with her $25 in savings. “Shall I buy a bond, or shall I buy a bicycle?” Stavridis said that Eisenhower told her: Buy that bond. There’s always time to buy the bicycle later on.
To what end would our treasury use the proceeds from such bonds? Helping to pay for the trillions of dollars spent on emergency relief is an obvious answer, but so is building needed capacity for future crises.
In the epilogue to his 2004 book, “The Great Influenza,” John M. Barry predicted that efficiency pressures on heath-care systems would lead to a shortage of beds and critical reserves when a pandemic like the deadly influenza of 1918 to 1920 surfaced. No acute, widespread shortage has emerged yet in the coronavirus battle, but shortages exist in some places. That is no one’s “fault.” Excess capacity for pandemic preparation isn’t a private-sector profit center, and it’s low on the list of public needs until a crisis makes it critical.
So sell bonds and build capacity: Build hospitals that will be needed in the future. Assemble stockpiles of medical equipment. Stand up some pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity. Prepare not just for the potential mutation of this virus into a deadlier form — as happened with the 1918 flu, by the way — but also for the next pandemic.
Americans need to be part of the battle. President Trump is right that we need to get back to work as soon as possible — his message isn’t hard to understand, though it has been serially distorted online — but we also have to contribute as citizens. Public health bonds would help. Here’s hoping that he moves to launch them and, if so, that everyone digs deep to buy them.