The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A pandemic of misery has lessons not to be forgotten. A national commission will help.

Nurse Shannon Casey, right, helps Brenda Markle get comfortable in her room at UPMC Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh on Jan. 11. After a long struggle suffering from the effects of covid-19 and other health problems, Markle died on July 30. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

No family, city or nation has been untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. A pressing and unmet need remains to understand why it happened, what worked in response and what didn’t, and how to prevent the next one. Four senators, two Democrats and two Republicans, have proposed legislation to create a 9/11-commission-style national panel that would examine the pandemic and help prepare for the future. This bill ought to be approved by Congress.

Similar proposals were made last year but went nowhere, in part because of Republican fears that such a panel would blame President Donald Trump. But the political calculation has shifted. Mr. Trump is no longer in the White House. Some Republicans, as well as Democrats, are eager to get to the bottom of the virus origins. Democrats also want to improve public health and governance. The new legislation is sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). It hopefully will pick up more support soon.

Their bill would create a 10-member commission, five from each party, with powers to hold hearings and issue subpoenas, as well as handle intelligence information. It would report within 20 months. The legislation envisions a broad agenda. One vital area of inquiry is public health systems, which were overwhelmed during the pandemic. The commission would examine the “structure, coordination [and] management” of all levels of government, scrutinizing performance in a host of areas: preparedness of the United States before the pandemic; messaging to the public; acquiring and distributing personal protective equipment and medical supplies; working with the World Health Organization; developing, testing, manufacturing and distributing vaccines and other therapies; and the problems of stigma and discrimination.

Another part of the probe would focus on the virus origins. “The investigation,” the bill says, “shall fully and without prejudice explore the likely origins of covid-19 … including natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or another lab conducting similar research.” The recent U.S. intelligence community report on the virus origins was inconclusive. A commission with time and resources could get closer to the truth, although unfettered cooperation by China is essential, and so far has not been forthcoming.

A lot of preparatory work has already been done by the Covid Commission Planning Group, a panel working with a wide range of experts, and ought to be utilized. A commission must deliver a road map for responding to the next pandemic, examining preparedness at all levels with an eye toward greater resilience and effectiveness. It should highlight the need for a disease early-warning system, including nationwide genomic viral surveillance. Next time, the American people ought to expect clarity and expertise from their leaders — and that means no more hawking useless drugs, no more garbage bags for gowns in hospital emergency rooms and, above all, no more deceptions. A national commission will make sure the lessons of history are not forgotten but written into action plans for the future.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Editorial Page Editor David Shipley, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).