What leaders can do to restore public health and the economy
In a pandemic, speed is critical. Lives, economic stability, and national security depend on a rapid response. Government coordination is also key, as the disease takes advantage of any chaos to spread. The grim milestone of 100,000 deaths in the United States reminds us of the human face of the coronavirus and the staggering loss.
Earlier this year, I and other global health security experts called for a unified coronavirus response. To save lives and avoid economic disaster, our government needed a national plan to increase testing, bolster lab capacity to process results, manufacture personal protective equipment, and expand the health care workforce. We needed to start sprinting. It was clear the disease could turn into a five alarm blaze.
Yet as summer begins, the American response remains slow and chaotic, fueling the disorder on which the coronavirus thrives. Like a pandemic edition of Groundhog Day, we still lack the robust public health tools we need across the country to fight the coronavirus and safely reopen the economy. The United States is experiencing 20,000 new cases per day, and the coronavirus is still stable and transmitting, deprived of needed oxygen, but hardly extinguished and waiting to reignite.
Over the spring, many leading scientists and public health advocates, who have worked for presidents of both parties, produced a mountain of suggestions. They warned the federal government of impending testing and equipment shortages and called for urgent implementation of the Defense Production Act. They had also called for a surge of Peace Corps volunteers to help communities identify and stamp out the disease, and they recommended a unified national reopening strategy. It is not too late to implement these proposals in a coordinated fashion. In order to do so, we will need to track progress and setbacks relentlessly.
We still need a transparent federal assessment of the barriers to testing, tracing, hospital capacity, and protections for at risk populations in each state. Without knowing the full extent of capacity and gaps, we cannot reliably fill them both now and until a safe effective vaccine is produced and distributed. The public deserves a national timeline and plan for these actions. In parallel, we must hire and train historic numbers of community health workers and contact tracers. Stopgap approaches will not succeed in a pandemic. We must plan for months and years ahead.
Success in extinguishing the coronavirus will also require an exquisitely organized approach to tracking progress. Leaders should explain to their constituents the risk of specific activities and update those risks as we learn more about the coronavirus. States should not be open or closed. Leaders should declare that people can start to expand some activities in ways consistent with mitigating risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reopening guidelines are certainly a start, however, the federal government and every state should have a dashboard with specific public health goals that must be met for reopening to occur in a way that saves lives and bolsters the economy. A science or public health expert should be in charge of public briefings on progress on the metrics.
In concert with progress at home, American leadership on the world stage must be fixed. Instead of competing with countries for supply contracts, we need an approach to manufacture and share testing and equipment. Instead of ending our relationship with the World Health Organization and failing to negotiate agreements in the United Nations and Group of Seven, we must use our scarce resources to assist everyone we can. Instead of leaving our chair vacant at forums like the global vaccine development summit, we must come back to the table with partners and allies to create a production and distribution to plan to beat the coronavirus. If we fail to do this, our international diplomatic power will be jeopardized, and our work at home to fight the pandemic will be for nothing.
The United States must take action now to implement a unified approach to prevent the loss of thousands more lives from future waves. Only the federal government has the ability to do this. Governors and mayors have courageously stepped up, but the coordination between states cannot substitute the organized and effective national response required to save lives and restore the economy. Our country has risen to great challenges throughout history. We cannot allow this crisis to become the exception. Our lives, our security, and our economy all depend on it.
Beth Cameron serves as vice president for global biological policy at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She previously served as the senior director for global health security on the White House National Security Council staff.
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