Following the Ebola epidemic of 2014 President Obama established the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense “to do everything possible within the vast powers and resources of the U.S. government to prepare for the next disease outbreak and prevent it from becoming an epidemic or pandemic.” “NSC-pandemic-office-trump-closed”. This unit was “disbanded under a reorganization by national security adviser John Bolton” in May 2018.
America’s disorganized and late starting response to the spread of Covid-19 in our country can be attributed in part to this act. What was obviously a mistake with the benefit of hindsight, however, was a more difficult judgement at the time. Two classes of judgements were involved: a) what organizational structure would service the country’s interests best (for Bolton, everything always seemed focused on the preparation for war), and b) how many and what resources should be devoted to events that might never occur?
The government’s role in disaster management is spread between a number of agencies, from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to state and local health services, fire departments etc. I have no idea if each potential disaster is managed by the most appropriate agency but coordination between them is often very important. That requires designated leadership.
Assigning resources to prepare for dealing with possible future epidemics means not assigning them to something also of value. What are the tradeoffs? We keep emergency reserves of many things: oil, medicine, face masks, excess capacity at hospitals, etc. What is the right amount? We keep a large military in case of war that we hope will never occur (unfortunately we have very foolishly used them unnecessarily too often and in too many places). What is the right size of the military given that every additional soldier is one fewer of whatever else she might have done? Keeping a military reserve that can be called up in the case of war is one of the approaches we have taken in dealing with this question.
It is hard to impossible to know for sure the best answer. Devoting resources to being prepared for an event that never occurs might seem (increasingly) wasteful. But so might an insurance policy for something we hope never happens, and we are generally wise to have it. Not taking the time and resources to be prepared can be extremely costly if the disaster occurs. Large banks are now required to test the resilience of their balance sheets against financial shocks of one sort or another (stress tests) and to prepare living wills for how they would be liquidated if they became insolvent. These are costly exercises but well worth the cost if it helps avoid bank failures and/or makes the orderly liquidation of an insolvent large bank feasible, thus making market discipline of excessive bank risk taking credible. https://wcoats.blog/2012/06/29/spains-financial-crisis-first-principles/
There are rumors that the HHS blocked the use of foreign tests for the Coronavirus to preserve business for American pharmaceutical companies and that President Trump exempted the UK and Ireland from his initial European travel ban because he owns golf courses in Scotland and Ireland may or may not be true. https://wcoats.blog/?s=crony+capitalism. Fortunately, we still have a free press, which is likely to get to the bottom of that.
Where the stakes are high, we should pay the cost of reasonable preparations for disasters of one sort or another. The lives of tens of thousands of citizens are at stake. Getting the balance right, as in so many other areas of governance is not easy. But the United States today is neither well organized nor properly prepared to mitigate the damage of the epidemic now about to sweep over us. We will pay a much larger cost for this than we should have.
However, it is not only the country’s lack of preparedness that is a major problem in this national crisis. The President himself appears unprepared to handle facts or rely on his medical experts and convey confidence to the public by making accurate statements about what is being done and what the public should expect. His recent oval office statements about an all-encompassing Europe travel ban including the banning of cargo coming from Europe and the availability of free tests and treatments was basically wrong. Each claim had to be corrected and re-explained in an already confusing and panic-induced environment. The White House has not presented a clear, coherent plan for containing the damage of covid-19 that the Trump’s own administration understands or is behind. Along with starting late to address the challenge, the Trump administration has been and remains incoherently organized to move forward from here. Stay tuned for the next tweet.