Finger pointing is a way of life. While universal everywhere, today it seems most prevalent in Washington. Every year politicians chastise one another for mistakes of the past that have created undesirable outcomes. Such is the case with the COVID-19.
Clearly mistakes have been made, many of them by the current administration. But President Trump inherited circumstances and problems that were very present when previous administrations were in place. Knowing something about what occurred is a way to better understand the circumstances in which we find ourselves now and in the future.
Identifying and attempting to find treatments and cures for future pathogens is an important responsibility of government. The problem is that the incentives to undertake this work rise and fall in conjunction with a host of problems that governments face. How much attention should be paid to, and money allocated for identifying a disease that may cause an epidemic in the future? There is no easy answer especially since the financial incentives that usually signal to a country or a company to invest are not there when the disease is still only an unknown possibility. For instance, in 2009 France spent $520 million to purchase 94 million doses of a vaccine developed to inoculate against the H1N1 influenza. As it turned out the impact of the disease was negligible. Second guessers lambasted the French government for spending resources that were vitally needed elsewhere.
Planning and reacting to future possible crises are a perennial problem for two reasons. First the crises itself might not occur. Second, the priority of spending time and money becomes less important when the alternative is using resources for current and pressing problems. Therefore, there are few incentives for companies, organizations, or governments to allocate time and resources to problems which may or may not emerge.
To most in government who are pressed with immediate problems and issues, not the least of which is getting reelected, it becomes less important to spend time and money preparing for something that may or may not occur. As Dr. Anthony Fauci so aptly put it, “We undershot our preparedness.”
That “undershooting occurred” over a long time and under various administrations. Between fiscal year 2003 and 2020, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, federal money for pandemics and other emergencies fell 35% according to the Wall Street Journal. Human nature, which always favors putting off until tomorrow what is difficult today, partially explains this “undershooting.” The damage was exacerbated by years of neglect. Millions of masks, including the highly effective N 95 masks, were produced, and stockpiled for use by U.S. healthcare workers and others to use in case of a pandemic. However, poor storage and neglect relegated many of them useless when they were most needed. And that is merely the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of products were similarly neglected as was regularized pandemic training.
Unlike immediate emergencies such as hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes that occur more regularly, there is little immediate incentive for the public or the private sector to prepare for, or even to maintain the products necessary to mitigate a pandemic. So, to whom does the finger point for inadequate preparation for a pandemic? President Trump must shoulder much of the blame for downplaying its potential impact, but years of inattentiveness at best to the problem must be spread among many administrations and political parties. To quote the cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Let us hope we have learned our lesson and once this crisis has passed, we can cease finger pointing long enough to focus upon longer run answers to inevitable questions.
Michael A. MacDowell is president emeritus of Misericordia University in Dallas.