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Three Pandemic Lessons for the Next Crisis

What we've learned from dealing with COVID-19 could improve the federal response in the future.

During the long, divisive, and seemingly endless war against COVID-19, there was a constant whisper. Would our battle have been more successful if someone—anyone—had really been in charge?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had its share of the skirmishes. Then there was the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. Most of the 50 states had governors speaking loudly, but out of very different megaphones. Then there was the public health apparatus, sometimes in state hands but mostly led by counties—except when municipalities took the lead.

As Brian Castrucci, head of the de Beaumont Foundation, put it, “If you believe in a ‘U.S. public health system,’ you probably also believe in unicorns because neither exists.” That non-system imposed enormous costs on the American economy. Economists David M. Cutler and Lawrence H. Summers called COVID-19 the “$16 trillion virus,” based on estimates of the amount the disease cost Americans in terms of premature deaths, other health issues, and lost gross domestic product. That’s four times the impact of the Great Recession, the damages of 50 years of climate change, and twice the expenditures for all of the military actions in which America has fought since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Surely, putting a single entity in charge would have saved us from this fate, it might seem. But as we’ve argued in our new report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government, Managing the Next Crisis: Twelve Principles for Dealing with Viral Uncertainty, that is a pipe dream. Given the vast complexity of the nation—and of the health authorities who try to keep its citizens safe—it would have been unwise to impose a one-size-fits-all strategy on regions as different as South Dakota’s Black Hills and New York’s Times Square. And given the political tensions woven throughout the COVID-19 response, it would have been impossible. 

That’s a frightening prospect. Another pandemic is inevitable at some point in our future. And a wrenching national crisis is certain, much sooner. Stanford economist Paul Romer famously said in 2002 that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Without thinking carefully about the lessons we need to learn from COVID-19, as well as ensuring we don’t try to do what can’t or shouldn’t be done, we’re likely to fall right into Romer’s trap.

What can—and should—the federal government do when faced with the viral uncertainty that comes with a crisis like COVID-19? Here are three steps to begin.

First, local governments will inevitably wage the front-line campaign against future crises, but the feds can—and must—play a crucial role in coordinating the national response. If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that no community can insulate itself from fast-spreading problems. A major crisis in any community can be a major threat to all. 

The novel coronavirus taught us the hard way just how fast a pandemic can spread, whether in its initial outbreak or in the rampage of virus variants and how a problem anywhere can quickly become a problem everywhere. It’s been a struggle to create a common interest to join Americans in pursuit of such a common enemy. We’ve learned that fighting any future crisis will require a robust role for national leaders to frame a shared vision to the problems at hand. 

Second, the federal government can never run the national response, except in wartime, but it can play a central role in getting buy-in from the major players—in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—and weaving together the pieces connecting them. There can’t be coordination without a coordinator. There can’t be a coordinator that tries to impose its will on everyone. A smart coordinator can play the most effective role by helping to define the way everyone looks at a problem and what roads are likely to be most successful. The kinds of networks we need are never self-creating or self-directing.

The twin efforts of Operation Warp Speed, to produce stunningly successful vaccines in record time, and the vaccine rollout, which put shots in the arms of more than half of all Americans in far less time than anyone imagined possible, provide great examples of how the feds can weave important pieces together. Even a devolved system needs someone at the tiller.

Third, this coordination requires creating a common language that can connect all the players. An enormous problem during the pandemic has been that there was no shared way of comparing “cases,” “deaths,” and other key issues in the campaign. Without the data collected and shared by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, it would have been tremendously more complicated to have a national conversation about the virus. 

Data is the key to understanding a problem well enough to develop a solution. Everyone involved in combating big problems needs to be able to communicate with each other, both to get a grasp on the problems and to share the strategies for crisis-fighting. The federal government doesn’t need to force everyone into a common strategy, but without a national lead in establishing the common language, the country could find itself repeatedly stumbling into variations of the Tower of Babel.

There are many other takeaways that we can spin from our painful battle against COVID-19. But these three lessons could frame the federal response to the inevitable crises we’ll face in the future. This is one crisis we can’t afford to waste.

Correction: The initial version of this piece misspelled Brian Castrucci's name.