Pandemic prevention demands more from our federal government

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The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic came as no surprise to the medical community, academic leaders and most governmental experts. 

A 2006 NIH study found direct links between wildlife trade, meat markets and the development of novel viruses that threaten global health. It is now widely known that deforestation and bushmeat trade led to the development of both HIV and Ebola. In 2005, the United Nations even released a report sounding the alarm, “Dramatic environmental changes now sweeping the planet, such as the loss of forests and the spread of cities, are promoting conditions for a rise in new and previously suppressed infectious diseases.” 

Now, we are seeing the results that come from ignoring these warnings: 3 million infected and over 215,000 dead globally and an economic collapse that is costing the U.S. economy and taxpayers billions of dollars each day. It’s only been 8 weeks. 

It is critical that we learn from COVID-19 so that we take the necessary steps to mitigate the future emergence of other novel viruses, while learning what our nation did wrong so we are better prepared the next time.

The first step is straightforward: in order to mitigate the emergence and spread of future viruses, we must stop rampant environmental degradation. In fact, the 2005 UN study that sent out the warning on growing pandemics also laid out what must be done to diminish the threat. Since the destruction of forests and habitats has led to more human contact with wild animals that harbor viruses that are adapting to the human genome, the global community must start protecting these areas from human exploitation. 

Since climate change has increased the range for carriers, like mosquitoes and other vectors, of new and emerging diseases and infections, the global community must do more to mitigate greenhouse gases so their ranges are as limited as possible.  Also, since the illicit and dangerous trade in live wildlife (especially mammals and birds) is directly linked to novel viruses like COVID-19, the global community must treat the live wildlife trade as the threat to humanity that it is and ban it.

We must increase penalties for those who violate international laws and increase resources dedicated to policing and stopping these illegal activities. In prohibiting this trade, we must take the affected human livelihoods into account and develop alternative incomes for those involved. Together, these steps will help reduce the emergence of novel viruses, but it is not foolproof and we must prepare for whatever may slip through the cracks. 

Once it became a novel virus, COVID-19 may have inevitably moved across the globe; however the human and economic destruction it has wrought on America was not inevitable. As the New York Times reported, Donald Trump ignored warnings from top government officials that COVID-19 was a real and existential threat for months and took no action to prepare the country for the coming health crisis. In fact on March 10, as COVID-19 continued to rage across America unabated, the Trump administration was asking Congress to cut funding $1.2 billion from the CDC. Moreover, as most Americans now know, in 2018 Trump disbanded the National Security Council directorate designated to fight global pandemics. Instead of warning the public of the dire threat of COVID-19 and taking actions to protect that nation, some senators left their intelligence briefings and sold their stock holdings. They also attempted to minimize the threat of a pandemic to the public.

The reality is the failure of the United States to prepare for COVID-19 was a political failure. While dedicated and heroic civil servants were sounding the alarm and working to protect Americans from this growing threat, the Trump administration was cutting them off at the knees. Numerous key positions were simply left vacant or filled by lower-level appointees in the lead responsive agencies such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, State and USAID. 

We must all take this moment to learn from COVID-19 and, as a nation, find the political will to reinvest in and reinvigorate our public sector and civil servants so that they are protected from the short-term, personal thinking of politicians who are out for themselves. We must restore the civil service merit system and whistleblower protections that the Trump administration has decimated. The public sector needs our political will to elect leaders who will support them and build a more efficient, effective and intelligent government that puts facts and science at the forefront of policy development. But without our political support, the civil service will be further decimated and more disaster and destruction will await all of us. 

Peter Jenkins is senior counsel at the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Tags Climate change climate crisis Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Donald Trump Environment Global warming Pandemic Virus zoonotic

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