Fighting Covid-19 Is Biden’s First and Most Urgent Job
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- 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 badly the current president has bungled 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 test-and-trace efforts and prepare states to distribute vaccines. He refused to heed scientific reality or let professionals lead the public health response. He fomented bitter disagreement among his own advisers. Trump hasn’t even bothered to wear a mask or otherwise lead Americans to take basic precautions.
In most ways, Biden simply needs to do the opposite. He can change the national conversation on Covid by restoring professional public health leadership, improving communication with the states and expediting the vaccine rollout — internationally as well as within the U.S. It’s good that he’s already outlined a solid pandemic response plan and gathered a team of experts who can be trusted to focus on ending the pandemic.
Above all, Biden should keep his pledge to heed advice from scientists and public health authorities — especially those at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC can do much to rationalize the pandemic response, as long as the president and his political advisers keep out of its way. The new administration should return to the tradition of CDC-led public briefings, to keep Americans up to date on the course of the pandemic and the progress of vaccination, and to deliver a consistent message about the need for masks, social distancing and hand-washing. The CDC should be granted its former authority to gather all detailed data on Covid infections, hospitalizations, deaths and so on from the states and feed this into a public national dashboard, as Biden has promised. And the agency should give states clear direction about when and how it’s safe for restaurants, stores, gyms, schools and businesses to be open.
Biden is rightly preparing to address the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on Black, Latino and Native American communities — where the Covid mortality rate has been as much as triple that among White Americans — by creating a special task force, led by Marcella Nunez-Smith, an eminent expert on disparities in health-care access. Her challenge will be to ensure that vulnerable communities are adequately tested and treated for Covid-19, that people get the support they need to isolate and quarantine when necessary, and that they get vaccinated without delay. She must be given the authority her difficult job will require.
Vaccinations aren’t going well. Operation Warp Speed has delivered vaccines to states but isn’t guiding distribution appropriately. And states, cities, hospitals, nursing homes and other agencies in charge of shot-giving need to do better. Biden has pledged to push the pace to at least 1 million shots per day, by setting up more sites, deploying mobile units, and sending the message that vaccines are safe and essential.
Biden also wants to get schools open by the spring. He’ll need to persuade Congress to pay for adapting school buildings and buses to social distancing. (If new variants of the coronavirus spread readily among children, vaccinating teachers and school staff will be even more urgent.) He wants to provide the resources to get more Americans tested, more quickly, by setting up a national pandemic testing board along the lines of Franklin Roosevelt’s War Production Board. He says he’ll boost production of personal protective equipment, and work with governors and mayors to push, prod and inspire people to wear masks. All these efforts should have begun months ago.
As if all this weren’t enough, Biden should also join the international effort to ensure that all countries get Covid-19 vaccines and treatments — by reversing Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization; joining Covax, the global vaccine purchasing pool; and donating and helping to procure vaccine supplies for poorer countries. As things stand, much of the world’s population may have to wait until 2022 for a shot. It could take years to immunize 60% of the people in Africa. Yet no country can be safe from Covid-19 until all countries are safe.
Finally, Biden must do everything possible to make sure that the next pandemic is not as deadly or as costly. That begins by restoring the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, whose job was to monitor disease outbreaks around the world — until the Trump administration dissolved it in 2018. The U.S. must also support the WHO, the agency best positioned to help all countries recognize and head off emerging health threats.
By the time Biden is sworn in, nearly 400,000 Americans will likely have died of Covid-19, and the disease will still be raging. The new president need be in no doubt about his first and most urgent task.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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