COVID-19 isn’t Ka­t­rina again; it’s even worse

The Kansas City Star - - Opinion - BY MICHAEL GER­SON Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

One symp­tom of the COVID-19 coro­n­avirus out­break — at least for me — has been nasty flash­backs to Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in August 2005. At the time, I was a pol­icy ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, visit­ing New York City. The day af­ter the storm hit, I re­call help­fully of­fer­ing that the fed­eral re­sponse “looked pretty good from here.”

The next sev­eral days had the qual­ity of a night­mare, as images of un­re­lieved suf­fer­ing filled the news. The cri­sis, it turned out, was un­prece­dented. When it came to pro­vid­ing relief and main­tain­ing or­der, the nor­mal pro­ce­dure was to de­fer to state and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. They quickly proved in­ca­pable or in­com­pe­tent. Many Amer­i­cans as­sumed that the main fed­eral com­po­nent of the re­sponse — the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency — could do emer­gency re­sponse and lo­gis­tics on a large scale. But FEMA wasn’t (and isn’t) an elite corps of emer­gency re­spon­ders. It was (and is) a skele­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion that ex­pands by hiring contractor­s in time of need.

As the scale of Ka­t­rina’s de­struc­tion be­came ev­i­dent, some at the White House pro­posed to pre­empt state and lo­cal roles and send in the mil­i­tary. De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld of­fered le­gal ob­jec­tions to con­duct­ing op­er­a­tions on U.S. soil. Some made the case that if we took ac­tion, we would “own” the sit­u­a­tion — cre­at­ing the im­pres­sion we could re­place the in­sti­tu­tions that had pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity.

We found, of course, that the pres­i­dent owns ev­ery cri­sis that can be solved only on a na­tional scale.

So why the flash­backs? Be­cause the United States again faces a cir­cum­stance in which the prob­lem may be larger than the in­sti­tu­tions that nor­mally deal with it. Public health is mainly the re­spon­si­bil­ity of states and lo­cal­i­ties. Amer­i­cans may think the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion is lead­ing a na­tional re­sponse to the coro­n­avirus. It isn’t. The CDC has a weak role in set­ting and im­ple­ment­ing pol­icy, and it is not suf­fi­ciently staffed to do the job peo­ple think it is do­ing. The work­ing group headed by Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence — while needed and help­ful — has only the power of ca­jol­ing. In a public health emer­gency, there is no na­tional co­or­di­nat­ing func­tion.

In nor­mal cir­cum­stances, I am all for fed­er­al­ism. But some prob­lems have a scope — say, fight­ing a war or con­struct­ing a na­tional high­way sys­tem — that over­whelms the the­ory of lo­cal con­trol.

Coro­n­avirus is likely to be this kind of prob­lem. As Amer­ica moves to the mit­i­ga­tion stage of the out­break, so­cial dis­tanc­ing mea­sures — such as clos­ing schools, end­ing mass gath­er­ings and re­strict­ing travel — are the next line of de­fense. But the prob­lem with such mea­sures is that they tend to be im­posed too late or lifted too early. And the cur­rent im­ple­men­ta­tion of so­cial dis­tanc­ing by states and lo­cal­i­ties can best be called spotty.

All the el­e­ments now ex­ist for a swiftly un­fold­ing emer­gency, on a scale that dwarfs Ka­t­rina. Be­cause of the early ab­sence of ad­e­quate tests, we have very lit­tle idea how preva­lent the dis­ease is in the coun­try and lit­tle idea of how fast it is spread­ing. Dan­ger­ously and ab­surdly, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have been us­ing the low num­ber of con­firmed cases as the ev­i­dence of suc­cess when it is ac­tu­ally a mea­sure of our blind­ness.

While ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials were speak­ing the word “con­tained,” the virus was spread­ing un­hin­dered in some places for weeks. And if sick­ness be­gins to come in a sud­den rush, it will swamp the health care sys­tem, lead­ing to short­ages of masks, hospi­tal beds, ven­ti­la­tors and per­son­nel.

In just 18 days, Italy went from three con­firmed cases of coro­n­avirus to im­pos­ing na­tion­wide in­ter­nal travel re­stric­tions. In a sim­i­lar cir­cum­stance, the United States would need an as­sertive, ac­tive, early fed­eral role in en­cour­ag­ing mit­i­ga­tion, ready­ing the health care sys­tem and help­ing states and lo­cal­i­ties bear the cost of the cri­sis. Agen­cies would have to ag­gres­sively use their power to in­flu­ence, be­cause there is no time for Congress to give them the real power to act. Some lo­gis­ti­cal role for the mil­i­tary may even be help­ful.

I can imag­ine the ob­jec­tions. Some may ar­gue that this would tram­ple on the author­ity of states and lo­cal­i­ties, and that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would own what­ever fol­lows.

But an un­prece­dented emer­gency may re­quire go­ing be­yond tra­di­tional think­ing and tra­di­tional roles. And the ad­min­is­tra­tion owns the sit­u­a­tion al­ready.

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