It's our fault 'the monster' virus is everywhere

Can we start again, please?   

That’s the emerging view of hundreds of scientists and public health officials perplexed by our nation’s seeming inability to discipline itself at any level to bring the novel coronavirus pandemic under control. 

Five months after the first lockdown orders were issued by governors to attempt to contain the virus, the disease is, according to Dr. Deborah BirxDeborah BirxAtlas contradicts Redfield on population susceptibility to coronavirus Controversial CDC guidelines were written by HHS officials, not scientists: report Trump coronavirus adviser threatens to sue Stanford researchers MORE, the point person of the administration’s pandemic team, “extraordinarily widespread.”  Ohio Gov. Mike DeWineMike DeWineOvernight Health Care: US coronavirus deaths hit 200,000 | Ginsburg's death puts future of ObamaCare at risk | Federal panel delays vote on initial COVID-19 vaccine distribution White House seeks to change subject from 200K COVID-19 deaths Trump supporters boo GOP Ohio governor at rally MORE (R) was more blunt: “[W]e just have to assume that the monster is everywhere. It’s everywhere.”

ADVERTISEMENT

What happened? 

Back in March, as our nation began its attempt to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, there were three questions that needed urgently to be answered: 

First, could our federal system of emergency response, which committed primary decision-making authority to the nation’s governors, adjust to a public health emergency that did not respect the political boundaries that shaped our response to it?   

Second, could President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE deliver the kind of sustained, consistent messaging essential to leading a nation’s response to a pandemic? 

Third, were the American people capable of restraining their individual appetites in the service of the common good? 

ADVERTISEMENT

After five months, the answer to all of these questions is tragically clear: No.   

First, America never really locked down long enough to matter, never really coordinated its states’ scattershot efforts, and Americans never curtailed our rampant individualism in the interest of public health.    

The results have been nothing if not catastrophic. The consequence of our failure to contain the virus is, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, that “if the nation does not change its course — and soon — deaths in the U.S. could well be in the multiples of hundreds of thousands.”    

A report issued by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, “Resetting Our Response: Changes Needed in the US Approach to COVID-19,” states the stark reality: “The COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge far beyond what any one state, territory or community can handle alone.  It is only our collective action that will generate the change necessary to regain control of this epidemic, avoid cascading crises in our health care system and economy, and save great numbers of lives throughout the United States.”   

Of course, the need for “collective action” to control the pandemic was apparent from the outset.  But the structure of emergency management in our country, which commits critical decision-making to the governors, relegating the federal role to providing essential resources and support, is ill-suited to managing a crisis that knows no boundaries, in which one state’s decisions can undermine the efforts of other states to contain the outbreak. This structure works well in the vast majority of crisis situations, in which the consequences of local decision-making remain local. It has proven completely unsuited to our current reality. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Second, however, any effort at a coordinated response has been undermined completely by the utter incoherence of the federal response. Far from delivering a unified message designed to bring the states’ responses into some form of order, President Trump and his team have, if anything, sown confusion, if not partisan division among the states, applauding clearly premature reopenings in dozens of southern and western states while assuring the American public that the pandemic would, by some “miracle,” exhaust itself.  

Now, with the infection rate “extraordinarily widespread,” and “the monster” present in every American community, the administration is pressuring schools across the country to reopen, despite evidence that asymptomatic people, including children, can spread the infection. 

We have reached a critical inflection point in the management of the pandemic. These two impediments to collective action — the structural disconnect and the administration’s failure to coordinate efforts — can be removed. The administration should work with the nation’s governors to develop a Nationwide Multi-State Compact embodying commitments on a national basis to require that masks be worn, that testing be implemented routinely as part of any large-scale reopening, including schools and universities, and that lockdown orders, if necessary, be implemented at a minimum regionally.  

His advisers must persuade President Trump that his political survival, not to mention his legacy, depends on his ability to lead this effort and to discipline himself to promote a consistent message. 

But President Trump as an individual embodies the third and largest challenge we face: The unwillingness of we Americans to discipline ourselves. The last time we were asked to sacrifice on a large scale was 41 years ago: On July 25, 1979, with the country facing drastic shortages of fossil fuels, and with gas riots breaking out across the country, President Carter addressed the nation, calling upon us to sacrifice individual desires to the common good. He stated: “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is … the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”    

Modern American history began with that speech. President Carter’s vision was repudiated soundly the following year with the landslide election of President Reagan, but we have been pursuing the “path of fragmentation and self-interest” ever since; indeed, that “constant conflict between narrow interests” is programmed into the very algorithms that drive our economy.  Entities such as cable TV news, the internet, and social media platforms — whose scope was unimagined in 1979 — profit from the segmentation of markets and the fragmentation of interests whose prevalence so concerned President Carter.   

Donald Trump’s career, a product of the merger of the commercial culture of unrestrained appetites with political culture, of that “mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for oneself some advantage over others,” embodies President Carter’s dystopian vision. But he is far from alone.   

The states and the federal government certainly could coordinate more closely, and that would help. But conquering COVID-19 ultimately will require us to look deeply within ourselves, accept that “the monster is everywhere,” and rediscover a willingness to sacrifice for the common good.   

If we fail, the ultimate fault, my fellow Americans, will lie not with our states or our statesmen, but with ourselves. 

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.