The US is in danger of learning the wrong lessons from Covid-19
A face mask hangs on a gate in front of the New York Stock Exchange on May 26, 2020, in New York City. | Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty ImagesAmerica is already missing its chance to prepare for the next pandemic.
America has an opportunity to learn from its mistakes during the Covid-19 pandemic — but it is already in danger of missing its chance.
Despite more than 575,000 dead Americans, there is no 9/11 Commission-style governmental inquiry into the mistakes and missteps that doomed the country’s early response to the virus. Congress has moved onto other business. The Biden White House is consumed with the current pandemic. But the next one will come, and sooner than we may think.
Vox reporters recently explored six other countries’ successes in the fight against Covid-19. We found some common themes: Nations that found success acted quickly, often having learned from previous encounters with deadly viruses.
South Korea learned from its mistakes during the MERS outbreak of 2015. After an outcry, the country built a new public health system that snapped into action in early 2020 and successfully contained Covid-19. The Senegalese were forced to shield themselves from Ebola last decade, and applied the same principles of isolating contacts to get a new virus under control.
This could be the moment for the US to examine what went wrong during Covid-19 — how a country considered to be the best-prepared in the world faltered so badly that it missed its chance to contain the virus at all.
“I fear that history will repeat itself and once COVID-19 is behind us, people will be lulled into complacency again,” Wafaa El-Sadr, a Columbia University epidemiologist who focuses on health systems, told me over email recently. “The US had the highest rating in terms of [global health security], yet our performance has been disappointing, if not shocking. Our lack of preparedness was catastrophic.”
But a combination of pandemic fatigue and the success of the US vaccine rollout — a late American triumph in the fight against the virus — threatens to erase any sense of urgency around reform.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
A man walks through an installation of American flags representing the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the Covid-19 pandemic on September 22, 2020, in Washington, DC.The vaccines are phenomenally effective and were delivered in record time, though much of the world is still waiting for them, prolonging the pandemic. In any case, a vaccine alone is not a plan for future pandemics, experts told me. Even a more aggressive timeline likely means months would pass, and potentially thousands would die, before a vaccine was widely distributed enough to end the pathogen.
“We still need tests and treatments while the vaccine is being evaluated and manufactured, and in case the vaccines don’t work,” Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch says. “There was no guarantee that mRNA would work this time, and no guarantee next time either.”
The US has a long list of questions to answer after the last year’s failures. How do we quickly scale up testing? Can we perform comprehensive contact tracing? Why was America so slow in setting up clinical trials for treatments? How did Covid-19 enter the US in the first place and what could have been done to stop it at the border? Were the lockdowns of last spring — the school and business closures — necessary to stop the virus’s spread?
“I am not sure the US has learned much at all — or what it even can learn given the federal nature of the country and the balkanized state of the health care system,” William Hanage, a Harvard epidemiologist, told me.
There are still some clear lessons from more successful aspects of other nation’s responses. The question is whether the US will be able to learn them.
Lesson 1: Act fast
Part of each country’s experience with Covid-19 has been luck, from where the virus landed and when to structural factors like the population’s age.
But bad luck wasn’t determinative. South Korea was one of the first countries to face a serious Covid-19 outbreak. The country controlled it by acting decisively, with mass testing and mandatory contact tracing, having already gamed out what it would do in this scenario. Island nations, like New Zealand and Taiwan, may have enjoyed structural advantages, but they still had the virus introduced into their country multiple times during the last year. They moved quickly to snuff out new clusters and prevent the virus from escaping containment.
As David Wallace-Wells wrote in a New York magazine feature on how Western countries lost to Covid-19: “Speed was probably the most significant factor in determining national outcomes.”
“What we are realizing is you can’t stop pandemics, but you can blunt them,” Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, who is participating in the nongovernment Covid Commission Planning Group, told me. He pointed to those Asia and Oceania c
May 3, 2021 - VOX
A face mask hangs on a gate in front of the New York Stock Exchange on May 26, 2020, in New York City. | Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty ImagesAmerica is already missing its chance to prepare for the next pandemic. America has an opportunity to learn from its mistakes during the Covid-19 pandemic — but it is already in danger of missing its chance. Despite more than 575,000 dead Americans, there is no 9/11 Commission-style governmental inquiry into the mistakes and missteps that doomed the country’s..