President-elect Joe Biden’s first and most urgent task will be to repair the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given how much the current president has messed up the job, it won’t be hard to do better. Even so, the scale of the task is daunting.
From the start, President Donald Trump failed to organize the response or create a national plan to allocate medical supplies, coordinate testing and traceability efforts, and prepare states to distribute vaccines. He refused to take scientific reality into account or let professionals lead the public health response. He fomented a bitter disagreement among his own advisers. Trump didn’t even bother to wear a mask or get Americans to take basic precautions.
In most cases, Biden just has to do the opposite. It can change the national conversation on COVID by restoring professional public health leadership, improving communication with states, and accelerating vaccine deployment – internationally as well as in the United States. who can be trusted to focus on ending the pandemic.
Above all, Biden should keep his pledge to heed the advice of scientists and public health authorities – especially that of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC can do a lot to streamline the response to the pandemic, as long as the president and his political advisers stay on the sidelines. The new administration is expected to return to the tradition of CDC-led public briefings, to keep Americans up to date with the pandemic and vaccine progress, and to deliver a cohesive message about the need for masks , social distancing and the laundry. The CDC should be granted its former authority to collect all detailed data on COVID infections, hospitalizations, deaths, etc. states and put them into a public national dashboard, as Biden promised. And the agency should make it clear to states when and how it’s safe to open restaurants, stores, gyms, schools, and businesses.
Biden is rightly preparing to fight the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on black, Latin American and Native American communities – where the death rate from COVID has so far tripled that of white Americans – by creating a group of special work, led by Marcella Nunez-Smith, a leading expert on disparities in access to health care. Her challenge will be to ensure that vulnerable communities are properly tested and treated for COVID-19, that people receive the support they need to self-isolate and self-quarantine if necessary, and that they get vaccinated. without delay. He must be given the authority that his difficult work will require.
The vaccinations are not going well. Operation Warp Speed delivered vaccine to states but is not properly guiding distribution. And states, cities, hospitals, nursing homes and other vaccine delivery agencies need to do better. Biden has pledged to step up the pace to at least 1 million shots per day, setting up more sites, deploying mobile units and sending the message that vaccines are safe and essential.
Biden also wants to open schools by spring. He will have to persuade Congress to pay to adapt school buildings and buses to social distancing. (If new variants of the coronavirus spread easily among children, vaccinating teachers and school staff will be even more urgent.) He wants to provide the resources to get more Americans tested, faster, by setting up a National Pandemic Testing Board along the lines of Franklin Roosevelt’s War Production Board. He says he will increase production of personal protective equipment and work with governors and mayors to push, inspire and inspire people to wear masks. All of these efforts should have started months ago.
As if all this weren’t enough, Biden should also join the international effort to ensure all countries receive COVID-19 vaccines and treatment – by reversing Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization; join Covax, the global vaccine purchasing pool; and donating and helping buy vaccines for the poorest countries. As it stands, a large portion of the world’s population may have to wait until 2022 to get vaccinated. It could take years to immunize 60% of the population in Africa. Yet no country can be safe from COVID-19 until all countries are.
Finally, Biden must do everything possible to ensure that the next pandemic is not so deadly or so costly. It starts with restoring the leadership of the National Security Council for Global Health Security and Biodefense, whose job it was to monitor epidemics around the world – until the Trump administration disbanded it in 2018. The United States must also support the WHO, the agency best positioned to help all countries recognize and repel emerging health threats.
By the time Biden is sworn in, nearly 400,000 Americans will likely have died from COVID-19, and the disease will still rage. The new president must not doubt his first and most urgent task.