The COVID-19 catastrophe demands a national commission review
Whatever one’s political persuasion, it should be clear by now to all Americans that our country and our world have collectively failed in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than allowing these failures to drag on while we remain dangerously unprepared for future pandemics, the time has come to determine what went wrong and how: together, we can fix it. As an essential first step, Congress should immediately establish a bipartisan national commission, modeled on the 9/11 Commission, to prepare a full, complete account of four essential failures and what we can do to address them.
First, the commission should examine the origins of the SARS-Cov-2 outbreak last year. Some theories have linked China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology with a viral sample closely related to SARS-Cov-2 and responsible for the deaths of miners infected in a bat-infested cave in southern China in 2012. Although some scientists and the Chinese government insist the outbreak began in the wild, other evidence raises the unanswered question of whether COVID-19 may have stemmed from an accidental lab release. The massive Chinese coverup — which, according to numerous reports, included denying visas to World Health Organization (WHO) investigators for the critical first weeks, destroying evidence, silencing scientists, shuttering labs seeking to openly share information, and “disappearing” citizen journalists — has only heightened concerns and confusion. The American people — and all people — need to know definitively where this outbreak originated. The commission would draw on all available resources in an effort to get to the bottom of this essential question.
Second, the commission would examine complaints that the WHO failed to respond effectively. There is little doubt the WHO could have treated Chinese obfuscation and misinformation more critically, or sounded the alarm a bit earlier. The WHO, however, is an organization shackled by design. It does not have the mandate to conduct its own pathogen surveillance network or to send emergency investigators to the site of an outbreak over the objections of a country; it does not even control the majority of its own budget. The commission would look at how the WHO could have done a better job. More importantly, it would examine how we collectively failed to build the type of global public health and pandemic protection infrastructure that could have stopped this pandemic — and what we must now do to fix that, including by helping to update and strengthen the WHO.
Third, the commission would examine the catastrophic failure of the United States to prepare for and respond to the pandemic. Whatever the transgressions, flaws or shortcomings of China and the WHO, that American failure is potentially one reason why more Americans have died from COVID-19 than have people in any other country. The downplaying of the threat and undermining of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by President Trump, the testing debacle, the lack of effective coordination and leadership, the earlier shuttering of the White House office of pandemic preparedness, are all well-documented failures that played a key role in the American catastrophe. Even half a year into the pandemic, America still does not have the rapid testing, contact tracing or other basic capabilities so desperately needed. But it would be folly to blame the Trump administration alone for the steady decline of America’s public health infrastructure over decades, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. To fix what is so clearly broken, we must understand everything that went wrong over decades and fix our biggest problems as if our lives depend on it. They do.
Fourth, the commission would chart a path forward for examining the extent to which we are dangerously unprepared for many other catastrophic events, from a nuclear accident to a climate disaster. Unless we start asking tough questions, we won’t know. Preparing for any one of these, without looking at the entire range of such threats, would only set us up to continually jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. We can then start building the structures and systems needed to prepare for (or better yet, to prevent) the next crises. Although examining the entire pantheon of existential threats would be too great a task for the commission, it could at least outline a scope of work for a follow-on commission exploring these broader issues.
Some may feel that establishing such a commission while the pandemic still rages would be like launching the 9/11 commission while the Twin Towers were still falling. But would it not have been better to do exactly that, rather than blindly charge into two wars without deep analysis and a long-term strategy? Getting to the bottom of our current crisis is not just an intellectual exercise. The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over but there are no guarantees that an even worse pandemic, possibly supercharged by a synthetic pathogen, might be just around the corner.
Others may suggest that now is not the time for finger-pointing. But what is the point of having fingers if not to point them at our greatest dangers? We must point fingers — but do so honestly, fairly and self-critically, with the goal of solving core problems.
Many might be inclined to see the November election as a referendum on the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, and thus seek to put off a thorough investigation until a new Congress and potentially a new president arrive. That would be a mistake, for both sides. For Democrats, it would be better to establish a bipartisan national commission now than to wait and have the effort seem to many Americans like an act of political retribution. For Republicans, it may be better to recognize that we face a national crisis and be seen as responding to it, rather than heading into an election pretending we are succeeding.
This crisis is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is a national and global one. This virus is not pausing for our political calendar, or targeting us based on political affiliations — and neither should we. Immediately establishing a bipartisan national commission on the COVID-19 catastrophe is our best course of action.
Jamie Metzl is a technology futurist, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a member of the World Health Organization’s international advisory committee on human genome editing. He is the author of five books, including “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” (2019). He previously served on the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration and with the United Nations. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl.
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