Government alone cannot protect us from epidemics

Government alone cannot protect us from epidemics
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The growing COVID-19 outbreak (formerly known as 2019 Novel Coronavirus) has rattled people around the world. The effects have not been limited to the infected and their families. American businesses like Apple have lowered their sales expectations due to the inaccessibility of parts from China, the U.S. travel industry may lose up to 10 billion dollars from a drop in Chinese tourists, and the Dow Jones has lost nearly 2,000 points this week; its worst two-session stretch since February 2018 with back-to-back losses of at least 800 points for the first time ever.

In my time at the Alabama and Federal Emergency Management Agencies, I saw firsthand the tireless efforts of the men and women at Health and Human Services (HHS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in a situation like this.

However, emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19, have the potential to fully overwhelm local, state, federal, and international capacities to respond. For this reason, governments at all levels must do a better job of engaging with the private sector to ensure emergency responders, doctors, patients, and everyone working to minimize the damage caused by these diseases have the resources they need when they need them.

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After a series of disasters in 2017 and 2018, FEMA created a framework of Community Lifelines to chart a path forward. According to FEMA, “A Lifeline enables the continuous operation of critical government and business functions and is essential to human health and safety or economic security.”

There are seven Community Lifelines: Safety and Security; Food, Water, Shelter; Health and Medical; Energy (power and fuel); Communications; Transportation, and Hazardous Materials. These seven essential services must be maintained to keep society functioning. 

With COVID-19, beyond the apparent disruption to the health and medical lifelines, it is not farfetched to see how vast supply chain disruptions could upset the equilibrium of many vital sectors.

As the private sector owns and is responsible for the lion’s share of critical infrastructure in our country, it is vital that the government engage our private partners in preparedness planning, and that we do it now.

A study last year found that 97 percent of the U.S. antibiotic supply comes from China, with 80 percent of active pharmaceutical ingredients — used to create our medicines — also imported from Asia. As a result, we are left with significant questions about our ability to manufacture essential supplies.

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It is no surprise that Chinese officials have also now chosen to export fewer goods; they are in the epicenter of this crisis and have to prioritize treating their own citizens. While this reduction in supplies might not hurt our response to the epidemic, it does highlight the importance of government and private sector coordination to protect vulnerable Americans.

Private industries hold the key to proactively protecting Americans. Because we have inadequately incorporated or accounted for the private sector’s major role in maintaining critical infrastructure (and Community Lifelines), we are now left to react to a poor set of circumstances rather than move forward with an alternate plan.

At my direction, FEMA completely revised Emergency Support Function #14, included in the National Response Framework, to be inclusive of private sector engagement, indicating the importance of this interaction for emergency preparedness and response purposes.

The COVID-19 outbreak should serve as a wakeup call for all levels of government to conduct robust and more private-inclusive continuity planning for infectious diseases, and other hazards, so that we may stand resilient in the face of future threats.

To get this done, we as a nation need to take the following steps:

  1. Prioritize public-private partnerships: This requires rewriting our plans and policies to consider the government in a support mission to private industries during the crisis rather than assuming it will lead the way. The government also needs to improve its understanding of the complex matrix of services and commodities that support Lifelines, such as medical supplies and services, communications, and utilities. 
  2. Encourage business to update and improve risk management strategies: Much like major businesses have done in developing Emergency Operations Centers and connecting to emergency response, we need the private sector at the table with FEMA to build out the Community Lifeline framework. Identifying the essential items that ensure you can continue your mission is the first step, followed by identifying alternative sources for goods if your primary supplier is impaired. 
  3. Fully fund the implementation of Community Lifelines: I have often said that logistics and supply chain is the most important, and least planned for, part of emergency management. A failure in logistics is unacceptable. Only a small fraction of federal funding is allocated to helping states and local communities enhance their supply chain and partnerships with the private sector. This must change. We are failing to adequately understand and utilize the resources the private sector might possess in impacted communities. 
  4. Encourage individuals to take responsibility for their personal preparedness: Citizens are the true first responder in an emergency. If the general public takes responsibility for their financial resilience and basic supplies, we will not have the same demand for systems in times of disaster. We need to continue to enhance our culture of preparedness. This must be pervasive, from carrying the right insurance to understanding the importance of a credit score, to having enough supplies to sustain you and your family for an extended period. We must reduce dependence on the federal government, and it starts with the decisions you make at home.  

The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed weaknesses in how the complex and interconnected world fights disease. By strengthening the public-private relationships, our nation will be better able to handle the longer, more damaging, and potentially deadlier crises. 

Brock Long is the executive chairman of Hagerty Consulting, Inc., was a FEMA administrator from 2017 to 2019.