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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Lawmakers should prepare for next pandemic

The Columbian
Published: June 5, 2024, 6:03am

Are we ready for the next pandemic?

That question should be central to the congressional Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. Instead, some members spent more than three hours Monday lobbing accusations at Dr. Anthony Fauci and hoping something would stick.

Fauci was director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from 1984 to 2022. As such, he was at the forefront of assessing COVID-19 and developing policies to reduce the impact when a previously unknown disease arrived in the United States.

In the wake of that, he has become a target for far-right elected officials and for a variety of conspiracy theories. Joe Kent, who is running for Congress from Southwest Washington, has said Fauci should be charged with murder to hold him “accountable” for the “scam that is COVID.” Others have expressed similar sentiments.

So, when Fauci appeared in a public hearing before the committee this week — after testifying behind closed doors for 14 hours in January — it was no surprise that Republican lawmakers made claims he dismissed as “simply preposterous.”

And it was no surprise that some of them repeated accusations that have been thoroughly debunked. Truth and evidence, apparently, are not necessary when scoring political points or formulating sound bites to share on social media. For example, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. R-Ga., said Fauci should be jailed; according to The Washington Post, she missed seven of the committee’s 10 previous meetings.

Meanwhile, a renewal of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Response Act, which was introduced last year, has stalled in Congress. The purpose of the act, according to the Health and Human Services Department, is “to improve the nation’s public health and medical preparedness and response capabilities for emergencies, whether deliberate, accidental, or natural.”

The impact of failing to prepare was evident when COVID arrived in 2020. Two years earlier, President Donald Trump had eliminated the federal response team tasked with preparing for a pandemic, reportedly as a cost-cutting measure. In the early days of the pandemic, Trump insisted that the virus would “disappear”; he also suggested the possibility of killing it by infusing light or disinfectant into the body.

More than 1 million deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to COVID.

Despite that failure, congressional Republicans are approaching the matter with the same lack of seriousness, focusing instead on conspiracy theories. It is reminiscent of a Trump initiative to find voter fraud following his election in 2016; a commission was convened with great fanfare, but quietly and quickly disbanded after failing to uncover widespread irregularities. It also is akin to efforts in the current Congress to impeach President Joe Biden; after failing to find any “high crimes and misdemeanors,” that effort has largely been abandoned.

Instead of blaming Fauci, investigators should prepare for the next pandemic. As Kizzmekia Corbett, who helped develop a COVID vaccine, wrote for Time magazine: “The federal government needs to change the paradigm that defines our federal research focuses, with an emphasis on being proactive instead of reactive.”

Being proactive means investing in public health, bolstering response mechanisms and giving the public a reason to trust in our institutions and medical professionals. It does not mean engaging in theatrics that distract from the task at hand.