By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student
On May 20th, the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government hosted a webinar to discuss Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 is Reshaping Our Government, Economy, and Society. Moderated by Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, this panel brought together experts in economics, presidential leadership, emergency management, and disease transmission to discuss public health response strategies; the economic impact of lockdowns and physical distancing; polarization; the role of state and local governments; and potential longer-term implications of COVID-19. Panelists included GMU Professor of Public Policy Dr. Maurice Kugler, GMU Associate Professor Dr. Jeremy Meyer, GMU Director for Extramural Projects Dr. Tonya Neaves, and Aerospace Physiologist Dr. Nereyda Sevilla.
Panelists described a variety of failures in the U.S. response to COVID-19, from the late implementation of physical distancing measures to insufficient testing capacity to inconsistent messaging and a lack of a coordinated strategy at the federal level. Dr. Mayer presented data on the number of tests being conducted per million people in a variety of countries; he found that low levels of testing in the U.S. blinded policymakers and scientists to the scope of the outbreak. Testing delays combined with uncoordinated federal messaging and a lack of a coherent national strategy set the U.S. on a path to failure that would see cases skyrocket at a rapid pace.
Dr. Kruger highlighted the economic challenges and dangers associated with lockdown policies that many countries put in place because they failed to enact physical distancing measures earlier in the outbreak. Lockdowns were meant to be used as a tool to flatten the curve, prevent a catastrophic surge of patients stressing hospital systems, and give the U.S. time to ramp up testing capacity. As many parts of the country prepare to lift lockdowns, the danger that the government did not adequately prepare during this time is high. As we saw recently in Wuhan, China when they emerged from lockdown, additional cases must be met with a massive testing capacity to contain a second wave. Dr. Kugler spoke favorably of the strategies implemented by South Korea, Germany, and Switzerland that involve massive testing and targeted care and isolation. While such a strategy has fewer drawbacks, particularly economic drawbacks, than lockdowns, Dr. Kugler believes that the U.S. does not have the resources, personnel, technology, and strategic vision to successfully implement a similar course of action.
Dr. Mayer makes the interesting point that, generally, in moments of national crisis, polarization is (at least briefly) reduced and the president enjoys a significant boost in his approval rating. Yet with COVID-19, Trump has had a noticeably smaller “crisis approval surge” than other presidents. Trump himself is likely partially to blame for this effect, because he has used the pandemic as a wedge to achieve political goals. His rhetoric has generally not invoked national unity, but has stoked opposition to his rivals. Dr. Mayer argues that polarization makes us more vulnerable and less able to recover quickly from a crisis. A point Dr. Kugler made seems to reinforce this idea—lockdown measures take a much greater toll on low-income Americans who are out of work and who have very few options to fall back on. How many of you reading this are teleworking? This “digital divide” is furthering the very economic inequality that has historically increased Americans’ susceptibility to polarizing messages.
As bleak a picture of our current situation as this may have painted, the panelists suggested steps the U.S. can take starting today to improve the response. For example, Dr. Kugler describes a testing strategy that would allow physical distancing measures to be relaxed. This strategy involves testing 23 million Americans every day, so that every American is tested on a roughly biweekly basis. While there are many questions about whether the U.S. can ramp up capacity and coordinate this level of testing, Dr. Kugler identifies five key criteria that will make such a policy successful: harnessing a wide range of laboratories’ capabilities, making data open source so that the private sector can fully mobilize, implementing robust oversight capabilities, establishing clear and effective lines of communication, and developing a strategy that defines a clear, simple, and achievable target.
Testing is just one part of the strategy the U.S. needs. Dr. Neaves highlighted the importance of state and local governments to this pandemic response; these leaders have stepped in to fill a vacuum left by the absence of national strategy and coordination. Dr. Neaves praised the regional partnerships that states have developed, and she argued that state governors should write an after-action report describing their successes and challenges, as well as those of the federal government’s. Such a report developed by a bipartisan group of governors will be key for improving pandemic response in the future and rebuilding the social capital and trust that the U.S. response to COVID-19 has eroded.
Finally, Dr. Sevilla made an important point about how the lessons we learned and the precautions we put in place because of COVID-19 could benefit the U.S. in unanticipated ways. For example, physical distancing measures, increased use of masks, reduced crowding, and increased handwashing could reduce the transmission of common pathogens, such as the flu virus. This prediction emphasizes the wide range of benefits that can be realized by prioritizing public health. Whether the U.S. next faces a natural or intentionally released outbreak from an emerging or well-known pathogen, broad-based improvements in public health infrastructure can bring benefits. The U.S. should prioritize improving laboratory capacity; bolstering state and local capabilities; helping medical systems prepare for a sudden surge in patients; and training in disease recognition the doctors and nurses who will be on the frontlines of the next outbreak.