Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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In Our View: Leaders ignoring lessons of COVID pandemic

The Columbian
Published:

Amid the United States’ roller coaster of a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, it remains essential to prepare for the next pandemic. COVID-19 has demonstrated America’s lack of preparedness — both financially and psychologically — for a widespread breakout of disease.

A pandemic is a national security threat, undermining supply chains, economic stability and public health while providing openings for political chaos. As CNA, a military advisory group, wrote this year, “We found that (violent extremists) will exploit the COVID-19 crisis to further their ideological and political agendas, and will integrate current events into existing narratives to substantiate their predictions and calls to action.”

Despite the impact of the COVID pandemic, there is evidence that U.S. leaders have not been paying attention. President Joe Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan calls for $30 billion in pandemic preparedness funding; but a recent report suggests that amount is going to be slashed to $5 billion in a bipartisan, negotiated compromise.

In an op-ed for The Hill, Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC, and former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle write: “We must make significant multi-year investments in pandemic preparedness and response — and we must start today. … When the pandemic struck in early 2020, it was evident early on that our public health data infrastructure was hopelessly stuck in the last century.”

Critics argue that a $30 billion investment in preventing the next pandemic would be too expensive. In truth, it would be a bargain. The Congressional Budget Office projects $7.6 trillion in lost economic output in the United States over the next decade because of the pandemic, and more than 600,000 deaths in the country have been attributed to the virus. Globally, the toll is exponentially worse.

“All of this stuff was a no-brainer 30 years ago,” Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told Vox.com. “We’ve been briefing Congress, we’ve been doing this since 1997. We were ignored. All those glossy reports telling people what to do? Those gathered dust in someone’s desk drawer.”

Be it infrastructure or climate change or pandemics, the United States has spent decades failing to prepare for the future. A study this year from Health Affairs found that public health spending at the state level dropped from $80.40 per capita in 2008 to $75.83 in 2018. The authors wrote: “Without institutional reform, states are susceptible to continued neglect of public health … Without substantial and sustained investment by states and ongoing robust federal support, the U.S. may well continue its ‘default’ approach to public health funding: ‘neglect, panic, repeat.’ ”

It doesn’t have to be that way. As epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, who worked on the global eradication of smallpox, famously said, “Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.”

In Washington, the Legislature this year approved $147 million for public health services over the next two years — a sharp increase from previous budgets. A new law also will reconfigure local health boards to provide a broader range of input and insight.

Meanwhile, several states have trimmed public health budgets and reduced the power of health departments — turning a pandemic that knows no political boundaries into a partisan issue.

Between that and efforts to minimize federal investment in public health, it is apparent that this nation has ignored necessary lessons from the pandemic. We will pay for such willful ignorance in the future.

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