How US pandemic preparedness can be a global insurance policy – The Hill
Next year, when the new Congress convenes, there will be innumerable competing priorities for the new representatives. One of these issues must be pandemic preparedness.
While COVID-19 may seem like a distant memory for some, the risks of natural or intentional disease spreading is very much with us — it is not a matter of if, but when, the next pandemic strikes. Unfortunately, the issue of pandemic preparedness has taken on a partisan bent, while minimizing the scale of the risk or the upsides of the opportunity could be disastrous.
The risk of pandemic disease is very much with us. The Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics asked the Biden administration just this week to declare an emergency over the spread of RSV amidst increasing cases of the flu. Monkeypox, while not in the news anymore, remains a threat. In October, polio was once again found in New York City’s wastewater. This is all occurring against the backdrop of rising flu cases and increased hospitalizations.
It is easy to lose focus after we feel as though we’ve made it through the storm of COVID-19. Much of the country has returned to a sense of “normalcy” and the urgency of the threat is much reduced. To be sure, our lives have irrevocably changed — the way we live, work, interact and more will never fully return to the pre-pandemic normal. That loss of focus risks missing the aforementioned disease risks — any one of those could become a significant challenge, to say nothing of the unknown unknowns, and several of those occurring at the same time could significantly stress our weakened health system.
Focusing solely on COVID-19 or “preparedness” misses the other half of the equation — the opportunity. Congress needs to look at pandemic preparedness not as an expense, or an “in case of emergency” protocol. It needs to think of preparedness as a global insurance policy that will yield benefits in the near term and, most importantly, in the event of a future pandemic.
Reinvesting and restructuring the strategic national stockpile based on the lessons of COVID-19 will see that we are better prepared to distribute much-needed personal protective equipment and other materials that were swiftly drawn upon during the pandemic. Ring-fencing pandemic funding, just as families do for car, home, or health insurance, will see continuous reinvestment and available resources in the event of a crisis. Establishing and stress-testing public-private partnerships will ensure that when the next round of vaccines or medicines are needed, we won’t be starting from scratch. Building surge capacity at hospitals will see us better prepared for any number of crises, including disease outbreaks.
We need to capitalize as much on the human side as the assets side of this insurance policy. We need to build cadres of people who stand ready to respond in their communities when an outbreak occurs. We need to reinvest in our health professionals — the doctors, nurses and other health care workers — on whom we deeply rely in a crisis. We must also look to the next generation of medical technical professionals.
While all of these arguments have been put forth before and endlessly agreed upon, little action has been taken. We need to reframe the debate beyond just those critical and sensible measures. We need to look at that pandemic preparedness insurance policy as a global competitive advantage in this era of strategic competition.
There is value in preparedness as deterrence. Man-made pandemics — whether terrorist or nation-state in origin — are just as real a possibility as those emerging from the natural world. By building a preparedness insurance policy — and publicly — there is an added benefit of undermining the attractiveness of a potential attack. If the adversary knows we are resilient and prepared, but their own population is far from such a comfortable position, they could well think twice before acting.
China is undergoing a radical series of lockdowns and isolations all in pursuit of the unrealistic “zero Covid policy”. While Beijing is making changes, the economic impact of this program is devastating for China’s growth. While there is nothing to say that the next pandemic will provoke a similar response, looking at pandemic preparedness through this lens is invaluable to reframing our own approach. Rather than looking at it as a sunk cost, we need to think of it as a competitive advantage. The strength and resiliency we are purchasing in case of an emergency will see us investing today and being prepared for tomorrow. If our country can better ride out a disease outbreak than China, our economy will better perform and our security will be more deeply ensured.
It also means that we will be better able to assist our allies, partners and those on the fence. If the United States was in a better position to respond during COVID-19 to the needs of the Middle East, Africa, Latin and South America, as well as Europe, how much goodwill would that have bought in the near and long term? We argue that ensuring the support of the democratic order through medical diplomacy is worth the costs of pandemic preparedness, especially in the long game of competition with China.
The next Congress has a significant opportunity to radically reshape the way we approach pandemic preparedness. Undoubtedly their to-do list will be long and the economic pressures increasing, but the cost of inaction and missed opportunities will far outweigh the costs of smartly investing in an insurance policy at home and a competitive advantage abroad.
Glenn Nye is the president and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress (CSPC). Dan Mahaffee is the senior vice president & director of Policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, where he leads its Geotech Program.
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