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Guest Opinion: We Are Still Not Prepared


“COVID–19 should serve as a warning of how much worse a pandemic could be—and spur the necessary action to contain an outbreak before it is again too late,” write Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker. “If the world doesn’t learn the right lessons from its failure to prepare and act on them with the speed, resources, and political and societal commitment they deserve, the toll next time could be considerably steeper.”  

Even with the lack of long-range planning and investment and a global health architecture that is far from sufficient, the authors argue, there was much that the U.S. government could and should have done by way of a short-range response. Once reports of the disease starting coming out of China, Osterholm and Olshaker argue, the Donald J. Trump administration should have taken action. 

“As soon as the novel and deadly coronavirus was identified, Washington could have conducted a quick but comprehensive review of national PPE [personal protective equipment] requirements, which would have led to the immediate ramping up of production for N95 masks and protective gowns and gloves and plans to produce more mechanical ventilators.” Additionally, they note, the U.S. government should have put in place a comprehensive test manufacturing capability, as well as a supply chain coordinator to work with governors.  

“The output from the White House was instead—and continues to be—a stream of self-congratulatory tweets, mixed messages, and contradictory daily briefings in which Trump simultaneously asserted far-reaching authority and control and denied responsibility for anything that went wrong or didn’t get done.”

Before the next pandemic, likely to be a novel influenza according to the authors, a broad group of actors should develop a comprehensive strategy that offers “an operational blueprint for how to get through the one or two years a pandemic would likely last,” and “adequate preparation must include a military-like model of procurement and production.”  

“The military doesn’t wait until war is declared to start building aircraft carriers, fighter jets, or other weapon systems,” they write. “Governments must be willing to subsidize the research, development, clinical trials, and manufacturing capacity for such drugs the same way they subsidize the development and manufacture of fighter planes and tanks.” 

“There should be a major, carefully coordinated disaster drill every year, similar to the military exercises the United States holds with its allies, but with a much broader range of partners,” they conclude. “Something along the lines of NATO will be necessary—a public-health-oriented treaty organization with prepositioned supplies, a deployment blueprint, and an agreement among signatories that an epidemic outbreak in one country will be met with a coordinated and equally vigorous response by all.” 

Michael T. Osterholm is Regents Professor and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He provided warning for the current crisis in “Preparing for the Next Pandemic” written for Foreign Affairs in 2005. 

Mark Olshaker is a writer and documentary filmmaker. 

This article is part of the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, which will be released in full on June 9. Article links bypass the paywall, so feel free to share with your audiences.