Missing from America's fight against COVID-19: Vision and boldness

Missing from America's fight against COVID-19: Vision and boldness
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Here’s a mind-boggling plan to safely open the economy and deal with a COVID-19 surge in the fall. Within six months, ramp up testing to 30 million Americans a week and create a giant COVID Community Healthcare Corps to do massive contact tracing. 

That’s at the core of a “National Covid-19 Testing Action Plan” proposed by experts assembled by the Rockefeller Foundation. The United States would have to develop new diagnostic, robotic and digital technologies; mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to do the contact tracing; and reconfigure currently underutilized laboratories across the country. It would be the biggest medical testing system that ever existed.  

Thirty million tests a week is more than five times the total number of tests done in the U.S. since February. And this may be at the lower end of what is needed. The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University suggested that the United States may have to test as many as 20 million people per day. 

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Sounds crazy, right?

Actually, this is the kind of bold, imaginative, game changing vision that once was an American trademark. So before anyone dismisses testing 30 million people a week, or  20 million a day, consider just a few of the inspiring examples of American audacity.      

In May 1940, as Nazi armies swept across Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stunned the country by committing the government to produce annually 50,000 combat aircraft. The U.S. then had a few thousand, mostly obsolete, warplanes in its arsenal.    

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States, in a space race with the Soviet Union, would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The only American manned space flight had been a 15-minute suborbital mission. 

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was a missile defense system to protect the U.S. from an intercontinental ballistic nuclear attack. It was appropriately nicknamed “Star Wars” because SDI existed only in science fiction.

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The point about those bold initiatives is their boldness. World War II and the Cold War presented an existential threat to the United States. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan sensed that it was not a time for half measures, that Americans would rally to clearly stated goals and objectives, and that the nation’s ingenuity and productivity would prove equal to the gigantic tasks they set.

Their daring paid off.  By 1944, the United States was producing nearly 100,000 warplanes a year whose bombing runs smashed the infrastructure of the German and Japanese empires. In 1969, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped on to the Moon’s surface. Star Wars never lived up to its promise, but the Soviet Union bled itself dry trying to match the American missile shield development, which helped bring about its collapse and the end of the Cold War.  

Boldness is not how anyone would characterize President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump retweets personal attacks on Clinton, Pelosi, Abrams Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' GOP sues California over Newsom's vote-by-mail order MORE’s response to COVID-19 testing. It’s more like denial and retreat. Trump inaccurately insists that the nation’s testing capability “is fully sufficient” to restart the economy, which many health experts dispute. He claims that the nation is at war, but shirks his duty as commander-in-chief by insisting that the states bear responsibility for testing. 

And then, in the manner of Panem President Coriolanus Snow in the movie “The Hunger Games,” Trump makes the states fight it out for vital testing equipment. In response to pressure for more testing, the White House this week released a testing plan that, as written, fails to set specific, numeric goals and timetables. 

Republicans profess to worship Ronald Reagan but seem to have no collective memory that much of his presidency was defined by boldness. (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”) Republican senators had to be pressured by Democrats to appropriate just $25 billion for COVID-19 testing. A bold, effective plan will almost certainly cost many times that. Don’t these people know there is a war on? 

President Trump talks about “making America great again.” But American greatness was due in no small part to the boldness of its leaders in crises. Tragically, in this crisis that kind of leadership is nowhere to be seen. 

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.