Biden should declare a state of war against the coronavirus
The United States is under unrelenting attacks. We are losing more Americans to COVID-19 every day than during the attack on Pearl Harbor or on 9/11. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose vaccination program is proceeding at a more rapid rate than that of any other nation, put it well when he stated: “Every hour we delay, the quicker the virus is spreading, and it will exact a very heavy price.”
If we just imagined that COVID-19 had a uniform and flag, we would not hesitate to call on the new president to respond by asking Congress to grant him the powers embedded in the War Powers Act as soon as he takes office on January 20.
Invoking the War Powers Act (WPA) would enable President Biden to use unique capacities provided in the act to accelerate the vaccination of Americans, without waiting for Congress to confirm his Cabinet members, hold hearings on the needed budget and so on. (The Washington Post reports that “Biden’s incoming administration is in danger of not having a single Cabinet official confirmed on Inauguration Day, upsetting a tradition going back to the Cold War of ensuring the president enters office with at least part of his national security team in place.”)
To dramatize the urgency, President Biden should not travel on January 20 from the steps of Congress to the White House — but go immediately to a joined (virtual) session of Congress, convened by the leaders of both Houses. There he would make his case for the anti-virus WPA, an appeal one hopes Congress would respond to by suspending usual procedures and vote for on the spot. It is easy to imagine that the new president and Congress would act in that way if the same number of Americans were dying – and about to die – because of some foreign power intervention. There seems no reason to act less dramatically just because they are falling to a virus rather than bombs.
Drawing on the WPA (as well as on the Defense Production Act, which Biden is already planning to invoke) would allow for rapid, effective, multifaceted domestic mobilization. The statutes enable the president to order corporations that manufacture vaccines to increase their production. If they need additional resources that are not available through the marketplace, the president can order these materials to be turned over to these corporations, compensating those that will be forced to give them up.
Furthermore, the WPA statutes authorize the president to grant first priority and right of way to all means of transportation needed to carry material to the factories that make vaccines and to distribute the vaccine. If private planes and trains are not available, he could draw on military transport.
Above all, President Biden could set up vaccination stations, open seven days a week and 24 hours a day, drawing on military medics to help staff these stations. They could train background-checked volunteers in the technique required to administer vaccine injections, as it is not a difficult procedure.
True, they will need to collect information as to who has been vaccinated and observe people for allergic reactions, which suggests that some medical supervision will be needed for each injection site. But non-medical volunteers should still be able to help to rapidly expand vaccination.
One can even imagine the president using the WPA provisions for public health already included in the act that imposes quarantines. And the president could use the WPA to mobilize health care workers to serve in the U.S. Public Health Service, and to entitle those who do so to all the benefits available to those who serve in the military.
The president should use these special powers to set up urgent care clinics in poor and minority neighborhoods, as well as in rural areas, where access to health care is often very inadequate. These centers should be used not merely to help distribute the vaccine and educate people about its merits but also to help treat some of the health conditions that make these populations particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. For instance, the clinics could test for hypertension, which is very easy to measure, with tools that cost little, and very easy to treat with medications.
The new $900 billion stimulus package includes the Save Our Stages Act, which “provid[es] $15 billion in relief to live music venues, independent movie theaters and other cultural organizations that have been forced to close during the pandemic.” Some of these funds should be used to pay artists (as they were during their participation in Great Depression-era public works projects) to produce videos, narratives and public service announcements in support of the campaign to encourage people to accept the vaccine and act safely.
In previous wars, presidents found it necessary and wise to accompany the mobilization of people and resources with a public education campaign. This time, such a campaign is particularly essential. The public needs to be convinced about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Moreover, trust in science, indeed in the fact that there are incontrovertible facts, needs to be restored, as does the sense of patriotism, of helping one another – as members of one nation – to fight the pandemic and restore the country’s economic and social life.
President-elect Biden should appeal to American patriotism, calling on all to serve in the fight against the virus, the greatest challenge we have faced over the last 100 years. Such a call for service may even help to reduce the divisiveness that bedevils American society and its government. It will not bring everybody back into the fold, but there is no better way to shore up unity than mobilization for war, as, to reiterate, we face an enemy more deadly than the Japanese in 1941 or the terrorists on 9/11.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His most recent book is “Reclaiming Patriotism,” which is available for download without charge.