How to better prepare us for the next pandemic
Those who lived through the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 will never forget the shock. As a nation we vowed “never again,” and poured billions of dollars and enormous human resources into building stronger and smarter systems to gather intelligence, fight terrorism and protect the homeland.
Dealing with pandemics has rightly been called war, and those of us who have spent careers in the armed forces know something about preparing for major conflict. It requires planning, practice and enough high quality equipment.
Despite our current anxiety, this pandemic will recede someday. And when it does we must turn our energies to the type of effort our nation made in 2002 and beyond: Identifying the vulnerabilities that opened us to attack, and restructuring our government and private sectors to make us better prepared next time.
Besides pumping stimulus money into the economy, Congress is looking at several bills to address the pandemic. One that’s especially promising is the bipartisan House bill “Made-in-America Emergency Preparedness Act.”
Introduced by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), it has two Republican and four Democratic original co-sponsors. All are members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of results-oriented lawmakers who, true to their name, try to address the nation’s biggest challenges rather than score partisan political points.
The legislation has two main thrusts. Both of them are consistent with the way the armed forces prepare for future conflicts. First planning: This legislation would establish a commission on U.S. preparedness for national emergencies, based on the much-praised 9/11 Commission.
The 9/11 Commission is a worthy model. Chaired by two highly regarded public figures – one Democrat, one Republican – the commission hired able staffers who dug deeply into why the nation was so unprepared for the attacks that used commercial passenger planes as weapons, and made recommendations for improvement.
The new commission would delve deeply into the structural, financial and societal factors that enabled the coronavirus to kill thousands of Americans, sucker-punch the economy, and disrupt such ordinary activities as going to work and seeing friends. It would recommend reforms, much as the 9/11 Commission helped trigger a substantial reshaping of the federal government’s intelligence and security operations. These recommendations would amount to a plan including clear responsibilities and adequately trained personnel to carry them out. It should include a program of exercises to keep those people and their organizations ready for action. In addition, lessons learned from those exercises need to be written down, turned into recommendations for improvement, and implemented as the threat and technology change.
The House bill’s second main purpose is to ensure the availability of critically needed materials during a pandemic. U.S. doctors, nurses and hospitals have had to scramble and scrounge for protective masks, gloves, gowns, face shields and other items. Using the model of the armed forces, the nation must have equipment available for quick issue and use. Availability needs to be checked, the equipment itself maintained, modernized and replaced as necessary.
The coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted U.S. vulnerability when it comes to accessing vital drugs and medical components. Just like equipment for the armed forces, our pandemic gear must be sourced from reliable suppliers, if at all possible, in the United States itself.
To make federal procurement supply chains more self-sufficient, the House bill would mandate “that by 2025, federal agencies responsible for responding to national emergencies are procuring essential supplies, like medication and personal protective equipment, from domestic sources of manufacturing.”
Finally, as in preparing for military conflict, the nation’s reserve capacity needs to be kept ready. To help ramp up domestic production and incentivize U.S. businesses to meet the new procurement requirements, the bill would allow “immediate expensing for firms that incur costs associated with expanded pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturing within the United States.”
It’s encouraging to note that the House bill has bipartisan support. Without it, nothing can get through our Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate.
The bill’s original co-sponsors are Reps. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Will Hurd (R-Texas), Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.). Gottheimer and Reed co-chair the Problem Solvers Caucus, a much-needed force for commonsense legislating in today’s hyperpartisan climate.
The coronavirus will go down as one of our era’s greatest tragedies. We will compound that tragedy if we don’t learn from it and better prepare ourselves for the next round. In the American armed forces, we have a great model for how to prepare for war, and we must use it.
Admiral Dennis Blair, US Navy (retired) is the former Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Command and former Director of National Intelligence.