Lessons from the COVID War
In preparation for a National Covid Commission a group of scholars directed by Philip Zelikow (director of the 9/11 Commission) began interviewing people and organizing task forces (I was an interviewee). The Covid Commission didn’t happen, a fact that illustrates part of the problem:
The policy agenda of both major American political parties appear mostly undisturbed by this pandemic. There is no momentum to fix the system….The Covid war revealed a collective national incompetence in governance….One common denominator stands out to us that spans the political spectrum. Leaders have drifted into treating this pandemic as if it were an unavoidable national catastrophe.
The results of this early investigation, however, are summarized in Lessons from the COVID WAR. Overall, a good book, not as pointed or data driven as I might have liked (see my talk for a more pointed overview), but I am in large agreement with the conclusions and it does contain some clarifying tidbits such as this one on the Obama playbook.
Innumerable speeches, books, and articles have stated that the Obama administration gave the incoming Trump administration a “playbook” on how to confront a pandemic and that this playbook was ignored. The Obama administration did indeed prepare and leave behind the “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents.”
But this playbook did not actually diagram any plays. There was no “how.” It did not explain what to do…when it came to the job of how to contain a pandemic that was headed for the United States in January 2020, the playbook was a blank page.
I also appreciated that Lessons has some some unheralded success stories from the state and local level. You may recall Tyler and I blogging repeatedly in 2020 about the advantages of pooled tests. Eventually pooled testing was approved but I haven’t seen data on how widely pooling was adopted or the effective increase in testing capacity that was produced. Lessons, however, offers an anecdote:
In San Antonio, a local charitable foundation paired with a blood bank to create a central Covid PCR testing lab (antigen tests were not yet readily available) that could combine samples (pooling) for efficiency and cost reduction, but also determine which individual in a pool was positive. Importantly, results were available within about twelve hours. That meant results were available before the start of school the new day.
The program helped San Antonio get kids back into the schools.
More generally, it’s striking that US schools were closed for far longer than French, German or Italian schools. See data at right on the number of weeks that “schools were closed, or party closed, to in-person instruction because of the pandemic (from Feb. 2020-March 2022)”. (South Korea, it should be noted, had some of the most advanced online education systems in the world.)
One general point made in Lessons that I wholeheartedly agree with this is that the school closures and many of the other controversial aspects of the pandemic response such as the lockdowns and mask mandates “were really symptoms of the deep problem. Without a more surgical toolkit, only blunt instruments were left.” With better testing, biomedical surveillance of the virus and honest communication we could have done better with much less intrusive and costly policies.
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