A real ‘full-scale, wartime strategy’ to fight the pandemic

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More than anything else, the Biden administration will be judged, as it should be, by how it handles the pandemic. Though it has taken some important steps recently, the signs so far are at best mixed.

As President Biden noted in his inaugural address, the pandemic has already taken more American lives in less than a year than the 405,000 lives lost during the entirety of World War II. But even with its elaborate 200-page plan, hyperbolically described as a “full-scale, wartime” strategy, the Biden administration is not treating the pandemic as the genuine national emergency it is. 

Right now, the more transmissible and probably more lethal U.K. variant of COVID-19 is already in 26 states; if deaths per capita in the United States replicate those in the U.K., we may soon be looking at a doubling of lives lost to as many as 8,000 per day. We are, in short, in a desperate race against time, requiring a radical shift in mindset — one that would treat the pandemic with the sense of five-alarm urgency that would follow a large-scale biological attack from a foreign country. 

World War II, in contrast, was treated as a true national emergency — a war that not only had to be won, but won as quickly and decisively as possible. What we learned then, and have to relearn today, is that assuring victory requires an all-out mobilization of the American people and a full deployment of the nation’s vast resources. What, then, would a genuine “full-scale, wartime” strategy look like today? 

First, victory will require a massive deployment of material resources. During World War II, defense expenditures in 1944, the peak year of the war, comprised 43 percent of the nation’s GDP — the equivalent of over 9 trillion dollars today. Biden’s much-needed COVID-19 relief package would cost an estimated $1.9 trillion. But the part of it most directly related to controlling the virus would cost only roughly $400 billion. Since a national emergency is no time for politics as usual, Democrats should demand that this part of the relief package be voted on and passed within seven days, for every day of delay means thousands more American deaths. The remainder of the relief package should then be passed as quickly as possible, using the reconciliation process as necessary.

Second, victory requires the effective utilization of all available human resources; during World War II, we mobilized over 16 million men and women to serve in the armed forces. Since one of the few things that liberals and conservatives agree upon is that the governments most basic responsibility is to protect the lives of its citizens, it should be possible to hasten the deployment of all relevant personnel from the National Guard, the U.S. military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the battle to control the virus. Should that prove insufficient to resolve personnel shortages, retired nurses, doctors, among others,  should be called upon as a matter of patriotic duty to assist in the effort. For volunteering to return to the frontlines, they should be generously compensated by the government. 

The goal should be at least 3 million vaccinations a day — not the modest 1 million per day (recently raised to 1.5 million per day) that the Biden administration originally announced. Such a goal is eminently feasible. The United States already delivered more than 1.5 million shots by Feb. 1. If the target of 3 million daily shots were met, it would be possible to provide two vaccine doses to the 96 million Americans over age 55 who account for 93 percent of COVID-19 deaths, as well as millions of other Americans by the first of May. The worst of the nightmare would then be over.

Third, winning a war requires innovation and a willingness to modify longstanding bureaucratic procedures. In combating the pandemic, an adequate supply of vaccinations is an indispensable weapon. With demand in many places already outstripping supply, and clear indications that not enough Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be available anytime soon to fill the gap, procedures for drug approval that are praiseworthy in normal circumstances must be modified. Major national emergencies require difficult tradeoffs. Concretely, this means that the easier-to-store AstraZeneca vaccine, already approved in Great Britain and likely soon to be approved in the European Union, should be evaluated on the basis of existing data and approved expeditiously. The same logic — approval of drugs that are likely to do more good than harm in the midst of a lethal national emergency — should also apply to the single-dose vaccine currently being tested by Johnson & Johnson. 

These steps will not be a panacea and they should take place alongside measures in the Biden administration plan, such as improved testing, wider distribution of high-quality masks and the invocation of the Defense Production Act (DPA). But we are in the middle of an urgent national emergency that requires immediate and bold action commensurate with the magnitude of the threat confronting us. If we take such action, we may yet stop the COVID-19 pandemic from killing more Americans than any episode in the nation’s long history. 

Jerome Karabel is professor of sociology at the University of California Berkeley and is the author of “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” and other books.

Tags Biden COVID-19 response Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID-19 plan COVID-19 vaccines DPA Healthcare Joe Biden Pandemic WWII

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