By Paolo von Schirach –
WASHINGTON – Nobody is prescient. No one could have foreseen the timing and the extent of the coronavirus pandemic explosion which originated in China and then from there spread all over the world. However, as I noted elsewhere, the US was especially vulnerable, because it was utterly unprepared to meet any public health emergency.
No systems, no plans
Amazing but true, America had no “pandemic early warning system” in place so that a timely alarm could be sounded, nor did America have any meaningful public health “rapid reaction force” in place that could have been activated after the alarm had been sounded, in order to deploy all the necessary medical equipment and other materials where mostly needed, while ordering and enforcing the necessary contagion prevention measures, (immediate widespread testing, quarantines, social distancing, and lock downs).
True, eventually some of these measures were ordered and implemented here in the US. But, lacking anything even resembling a master plan, all this was done very late, and in a horribly inefficient, fragmented fashion, in a climate of confusion, disorientation and –at times– sheer panic.
Panic led to an extreme response
And the panic created by a disease with no cure and catastrophic predictions about millions of dead Americans, unless we closed everything down, led to the fateful decision to shut the country down, with full knowledge of the incredible damage to the economy that this decision would imply, including a slew of bankruptcies, and tens of millions of suddenly unemployed workers.
Let me make this clear. It did not have to be this way. We closed America down because, at the time, with no deployable countermeasures available and a deadly disease spreading rapidly, there seemed to be no other viable choice, if the main goal was to save American lives.
And, again, there was no other practical choice because the US had no deployable countermeasures, no contagion mitigation systems that could be activated. Here is the sad truth. When coronavirus arrived, America was literally a sitting duck, completely unprepared and therefore defenseless.
Amazingly, this means that America, the world’s leading economic power, leader in medical research and information technology, had not thought that a pandemic could occur here, and therefore had done essentially nothing to prepare for it. As a result, when coronavirus hit, the US had no workable tools to slow down the advancing pandemic, except for quarantines and lockdowns — public health countermeasures first deployed in Europe in the Middle Ages, at a time in which public officials literally had no other remedies.
Taiwan, South Korea and Germany had systems
In contrast, other governments over time had developed pandemic preparedness plans, and they activated them –immediately, as soon as news of the pandemic originating in Wuhan, China spread.
In Taiwan the government had a system in place (created in the aftermath of the SARS pandemic in 2003) that was immediately set into action when the Taipei government realized that something bad was happening in China, back in December 2019.
In South Korea, almost overnight, the government deployed a robust virus containment strategy based on massive testing and subsequent isolation of all positive individuals.
In Germany, a national and regional network of testing facilities sprang into action, almost immediately. As a result, Germany, to date, has by far the lowest number of fatalities per unit of population compared to the rest of Europe.
Because they had robust and tested “damage limitation strategies”, these countries had tools to limit contagion. Their number of fatalities is quite low, despite no cure and no vaccine. Which is to say that, unlike the US, other governments had thought about the possibility of a pandemic and had therefore funded and put in place policies and countermeasures that helped them contain the damage. If they could do this, so could we. The fact that we did not is a huge stain on America, the country that is supposedly ahead of everyone in innovation, science and high tech.
Early warning system would have contained the pandemic
Let me be clear. A US early warning system would not –I repeat, would not– have prevented this virus for which there is no cure from reaching the US and infecting people. However, a sophisticated early warning system, (which includes the ability to learn as early as possible about an unfolding epidemic anywhere in the world, and then quickly track and isolate positive individuals in order to prevent or at least slow down contagion), combined with prepositioned stockpiles of medical emergency material, (masks, protective gear, ventilators, field hospitals easily deployable by the military in high incidence localities), most certainly would have slowed down this pandemic, while reducing its spread and scope. Which is to say that, if America had had a robust pandemic plan in place, we could have avoided shutting down almost the entire economy, while probably saving thousands of lives, even in the absence of a cure or vaccine.
Millions of victims?
As we had none of the rapid reaction tools in place, overtaken by panic, federal and state policy-makers concluded that the only choice before them was between condemning literally millions of Americans to a certain death caused by an advancing coronavirus, or closing down almost the entire US economy in order to slow down contagions, this way preventing a horrible human tragedy. And so, lacking any plausible alternatives, Washington and most of the 50 States decided to literally close down the biggest economic power on Earth.
What is terribly wrong with this scenario is that this “either we kill people, or we kill the economy” choice could have been avoided by having a tried and tested contagion prevention national plan in place that would have worked like a very powerful shock absorber. This is what Taiwan, South Korea and Germany, among others, did –rather successfully.
Of course, as I said above, even if America had been properly organized to react to this pandemic, there would have been some contagion, many deaths, huge economic damage and enormous dislocation resulting in a recession. Hence the need for the US Government to intervene with emergency funds. But, for sure, both the economic dislocation and the emergency interventions would not have been on this scale, (almost three trillion dollars!), because the damage, while still very substantial, would have been far more limited.
Are we going to learn from this disaster?
I really hope we learnt our lessons here; even if at the cost of more than 50,000 lives, and counting; and close to three trillion dollars in emergency aid to corporations and individuals, and counting. I hope that by now our elected leaders have realized that the US cannot afford to have essentially no workable rapid reaction system in place when it comes to low probability but extremely high risk public health occurrences.
Of course, it will cost money to set up and maintain the necessary early warning and rapid reaction infrastructure, trained workforce and chain of command.
But this strategic investment will be only a fraction of the close to three trillion dollars we have already spent so far, not to mention the fact that early detection will give us the ability to save thousands of lives by preventing out of control contagion via timely quarantines and other targeted isolation measures.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.