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Flam: America needs a 9/11 Commission for COVID

By F.D. Flam
Published: March 30, 2024, 6:01am

During the third week of March 2020, with little public debate and less warning, Americans were told to stay in their homes indefinitely as COVID cases climbed. There were only a few days between bland reassurances and lockdown orders — just enough time to go panic shopping for toilet paper.

The first pandemic year represents a crisis distinct from the period after vaccines became widely available. Congress should establish something like the 9/11 Commission — independent and bipartisan — to reexamine why our early response was so disruptive and yet so ineffective. A report issued in time for next year’s anniversary of the start of the pandemic might identify weaknesses in the country’s general inability to deal with the next crisis, whatever that entails.

Some eye-opening analyses covering that first year have recently appeared in “Lessons From the COVID War,” by a panel of scientists and policy experts, and “The Big Fail: What the Pandemic Revealed About Who America Protects and Who It Leaves Behind,” by journalists Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean. But an official bipartisan treatment would have a big impact on our polarized nation.

Such a commission should first address why our elected leaders and expert agencies didn’t warn the public sooner. There was strong evidence by early February 2020 that this disease had already spread far beyond Wuhan, China, that it could travel invisibly through mild cases, and that the oldest people were at highest risk.

Some fair warning could have helped people take voluntary measures to avoid infection and prepare for disruption. It wasn’t until mid-March that the White House declared COVID a national emergency. Waiting to issue warnings and directives until after the disease was widespread meant more deaths — and the need for more extreme measures to get the same level of mitigation.

A COVID commission could look at what government, employers and communities might have done to prevent deaths among essential workers and their families.

And a special investigation could also help puncture the thin excuse that U.S. leaders made bad decisions because of a lack of data on a novel virus. Even in those early days of 2020, we had enough information to act more rationally. By early April, there was growing evidence that the virus was spreading primarily indoors through airborne transmission and there was very little risk outdoors.

Blunt closures of businesses, schools and parks threw that knowledge out the window — and they didn’t represent scientific consensus. A targeted strategy could have harnessed what scientists had discerned about who was at the most risk of dying and which kinds of work were riskiest.

Lockdowns caused homes to become more crowded — with college students moving in with families, school age kids at home and others spending much more time in their houses or apartments. Epidemiologists have confirmed that hours of household exposure caused many more cases than exposures of less than 30 minutes. Again, time matters.

A COVID commission should also measure the lasting impact of these early fumbles. After vaccines were introduced, the U.S. started to see many more deaths than other comparably wealthy countries. We had lower vaccine uptake in part because the public health community had lost the people’s trust.

The justification for blunt, long-term restrictions was the assumption that more people would die as a result of more targeted measures. But that needs close examination — it’s also possible that those policies made the situation here much worse and deadlier than it had to be.

Lots of countries made mistakes as COVID spread around the world. The only way to learn from them is to give them a hard, nonpartisan look.

F.D. Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science.