Stop Saying That Everything Is Under Control. It Isn’t.
By The Editorial Board*
– The New York Times
Tackling the pandemic
will require a new, collective way of thinking about public health and society
as a whole.
with war tearing through Europe and Asia and America on the precipice of
joining the conflict, President Franklin D. Roosevelt compelled and inspired
industries and individuals to rally for the greater good. Food was
rationed without rioting, and car plants all but stopped producing automobiles
in favor of tanks and fuselages. By 1944, American factory workers were building nearly 100,000
warplanes a year — or about 11 per hour.
The United States is again faced with a crisis that calls
for a national response, demanding a mobilization of resources that the free
market or individual states cannot achieve on their own. The coronavirus
pandemic has sickened more than 180,000 people around the globe, and claimed
more than 7,000 lives already. Based on what they know about the virus so far,
experts say that between two million and 200 million people could be infected
in the coming weeks and months, in the United States alone. If the worst came to pass, as many as 1.7 million of our neighbors and
loved ones could die. How many people are affected depends on the actions that we as a nation take right now.
Understandably, many American leaders have been focused on
shoring up an economy that’s hemorrhaging money and trust. Many of the measures
being advanced by Congress, like paid sick leave, are crucial. But the best
hope for the economy, and the nation as a whole, is a strong public health
response to the coronavirus.
Confusion has reigned, among health care professionals and
laypeople alike, over when or whether to test patients, quarantine the exposed
and isolate the sick — even over how worried to be. Part of the problem is a
supply shortage that is already growing dire in some places. But another
problem is the lack of consistent messages from leaders, President Trump in
particular. For weeks now, clear statements — for example, that the worst is
yet to come — have been undercut by blithe assurances that everything is
Much of the country is facing a grave shortage of
ventilators, intensive care beds, the equipment and chemicals needed for
testing and all manner of medical supplies, including gloves, masks, swabs and
wipes. More space is also needed to put these supplies to use healing patients.
That means isolation wards for the sick and quarantine facilities for people
who are exposed to the coronavirus.
A number of hospitals and state and local governments are
working to secure those resources. Some cities and states have purchased hotels
and turned them into quarantine facilities. Others are in bidding wars with one
another for ventilators, I.C.U. beds and other essential equipment. If the
current projections hold — and if countries in Europe and cities in China are
any indication — neither these siloed efforts, nor the nation’s federally
maintained stash of medical supplies, will be enough to face what’s coming.
Worse still, pitting states against each other for limited
and essential supplies leaves poorer states at the mercy of the rich ones, and
the states hit first against those that will be hard hit in the coming weeks.
Yet on Monday, Mr. Trump told a group of governors desperate for equipment like
ventilators, “Try getting it yourselves.”
Instead, the federal government needs to step in to
dramatically ramp up production of all these goods, just as it ramped up
production of munitions during World War II. That will likely necessitate the
use of the Defense Production Act, a law that enables the
president to mobilize domestic industries in times of crisis. President Trump
has not demonstrated the democratic instincts or administrative competence to
inspire the confidence that he ought to be trusted with even more executive
authority. But he’s the only president America’s got, and this crisis requires
White House action. It’s not hard to imagine, with proper organization and
support, American factories producing ventilators, masks, hand sanitizer,
coronavirus tests and other medical equipment at a scale that would meet what
the crisis demands. But it won’t happen overnight, and it certainly won’t
happen without leadership.
“We could increase production fivefold in a 90- to 120-day
period,” Chris Kiple, chief executive of Ventec Life Systems, a Washington
State firm that makes ventilators used in hospitals, homes and ambulances, told Forbes last week. Kiple estimated that
current worldwide production capacity for ventilators is about 40,000 a year.
The government will also need to deploy the National Guard
or the Army to convert facilities like convention centers, hotels and parking
lots into testing sites, isolation units and humane quarantines.
In the absence of government leadership, companies can still
take it upon themselves to help the effort. In France, for example, LVMH,
which owns luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, announced Sunday it was repurposing perfume production
lines to make hand sanitizer and other anti-viral products.
Once supplies and space are secured, human capacity will
need to be addressed. There are not enough health care workers who are trained
and equipped to treat emergent, contagious lung infections in intensive care
units. If those workers fall ill and are themselves quarantined and isolated —
as some of them almost certainly will be, given the present lack of protective
equipment — more will have to be trained and prepared.
That challenge will be exacerbated by the fact that large
conferences and training sessions are likely to be verboten in the months
ahead. The federal government can help by conveying the urgency of the need —
and calling on health care workers to volunteer for such training — and then by
creating the necessary virtual modules and webinars.
Federal leaders can also help by calling on states to waive
licensing requirements for out-of-state medical workers, as Massachusetts has
already done. There will not be one giant outbreak here in the United States,
but rather many smaller ones that will vary in scope, size and duration. That
means some parts of the country will have much greater need than others. The
ability of any worker to deploy quickly from a low-need area to a high-need one
will save valuable time as the number of confirmed cases surges in the days
Public Works for
During World War II, housewives, students, retirees and the
unemployed moved into the labor force to help build tanks, planes and
armaments. It was a full-scale national effort — and something similar is
called for today.
This will take some creativity. In Spain, final year medical students are being pulled into clinics and
hospitals for more routine tasks to allow staff to focus on critical cases. In
the United States, retired hospital workers are being urged back into the work
force to provide needed expertise.
But the larger community can also pitch in. The government
could train America’s newly unemployed to sanitize hospital equipment or to
deliver food to the elderly and the immune-compromised. Child care for hospital
workers on the front lines is desperately needed. Through a new public works
program, corps of people could implement infection control in nursing homes and
other high-risk facilities — or teach workers of all kinds how best to protect themselves. There could
even be a network of individuals tasked with making phone calls to combat
loneliness for people in nursing homes and prisons while they’re unable to
These are just a few possibilities for putting people to
work confronting the crisis, to be sure. Any such programs stand a much better
chance of success if the federal government encourages them and directs them
through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A Clear, Strong Call
In recent days, the president has begun calling on industry
leaders to help: to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests and treatments for the
virus, to develop websites that might clarify and expedite testing and to cede
their parking lots to the needs of the public.
It’s time for him to call on the rest of the country as
well. Not just to scrub hands and forego basketball games, Broadway shows and
the local bar — but to meet this moment with urgency and altruism. Many
Americans are anxious to help their fellow citizens. Would they ration their
own consumption to help save them, if that’s what things came to?
During World War II, the American government raised corporate and personal income taxes, pushed
the business community onto a wartime footing, drafted millions into the
military or civilian defense forces, rationed civilian goods in service of
military goals and drastically reorganized society by offering jobs to women
and minorities who had long been excluded from them. The society that emerged
from the war was different — stronger — than the one that went into it.
It is remarkable what the country can do when the lives of
its citizens are in peril, and the final outcome is uncertain. What it takes is leadership to
summon that spirit to act in the national interest. March 17, 2020
*The Editorial Board is a group of opinion
journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain
longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.