The Chinese coronavirus crisis has unmasked much about America in just a few short weeks: the vulnerabilities in our critical supply chains, the burdensome and bureaucratic regulatory regime that stifles our public health response, the selfishness of Millennials and Gen-Zers who think social distancing is an Instagram meme, and the latent corporatism in both of our established political parties.
One hopes that when we are collectively on the other side of this, we can all have a national conversation about what went wrong and adjust our policy parameters accordingly.
This will require, first, the pro-China hawks to go back to their think-tank offices, shut the doors, and not say anything for a year or five or 10. The inability to look critically at China—in fact, the repeated shouting down and shunning of anyone who suggested that outsourcing our critical supply-chain capabilities to China was a bad thing—has left us, as a country, unable to produce even the basics of a potential coronavirus vaccine. It has also left us at the mercy of Chinese whims, since Chinese-owned supply chains produce an overwhelming majority of our antibiotics and other critical drugs upon which millions of Americans rely.
In fact, when Chinese supply chains faltered as they struggled with the early containment of coronavirus (that is, when they finally acknowledged it was even a problem), our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) listed 150 critical drugs that were at risk of shortage.
It goes without saying that this is a problem, not just from a practical standpoint, but also because relying on China for our critical production infrastructure means we are relying on an adversary for everything from military hardware, to medicine, to surgical masks. It is an unsustainable course, particularly in times of crisis.
This fact is finally getting some acknowledgment, even from unlikely sources. It is imperative that Congress take steps to decouple our critical production policies from China when we are on the other side of coronavirus.
It has also been stunning to watch the bureaucratic morass at both the state and federal government lumber forth, teeter, and, ultimately, fall, in the face of a national pandemic response.
When the first American case of coronavirus was confirmed in January, initial recognition and testing for the virus were stymied by federal regulations and unresponsive federal agencies. The CDC initially mishandled test development, delaying testing around the country, and forcing state labs to re-validate their testing protocols with the FDA even if they copied CDC protocol exactly.
The swift de-regulatory response from the White House has been encouraging but paints a stark portrait of how many regulations get in the way of seemingly common-sense activities.
The White House has had to lift regulations in order to expand access to telemedicine, allow doctors to practice medicine across state lines, and even to give manufacturers permission to sell industrial masks directly to hospitals. Regulations have been lifted to allow states to approve new tests developed within their borders, and labs across the country have been given special permission to use validated coronavirus tests while their “emergency use” authorizations await review.
The FDA just recently announced it would be lifting barriers to testing existing therapeutic drugs for their effectiveness against the virus.
But there are thousands of other regulations in the public-health realm and elsewhere that could be lifted to make life easier for people in a national quarantine. Some or all of these de-regulatory measures, particularly ones that have forced the public-health industry to stutter, should be made permanent even after this crisis is over.
At the Mercy of Big Business
The congressional response has also been revealing for the latent corporatism it has exposed in both our political parties.
The “Phase 2” response legislation put together by House Democrats, which passed the Republican Senate on March 18, was heavily tilted in favor of big business—companies with 500 or more employees were exempted from the paid leave mandates that small and medium-sized businesses will be required to implement. There is a reason that, even before members of Congress had text of the legislation, lobbyists on K Street already had copies.
Industry titans from the airline, cruise, and even the casino sectors are clamoring for taxpayer-funded relief. There is something of an argument to be made for it, as these industries are facing unprecedented economic conditions not subject to their control, and are also suffering as a result of government recommendations that people stay home and isolated.
If it is given, however, this corporate relief must be carefully calibrated to help industry employees. It cannot go to stock buybacks and executive bonuses. President Trump has said he supports such conditions. As of this writing, however, it remains to be seen if Congress feels the same.
Google, meanwhile, has volunteered its services to create a website for individuals to self-screen for testing. This is a laudable effort, as are the many instances of businesses coming together to do what they can in a national crisis. But Google also makes its money harvesting individual’s data. What does the Big Tech giant plan to do with all the data it will now receive as the result of a national pandemic? Should the company be allowed to profit from it? What about user privacy? These are questions that don’t yet have answers.
All of this is taking place against a backdrop of Americans forced to grapple with an unprecedented response to a rapidly spreading disease trail with social distancing, isolation, and containment. That is, unless you’re a Millennial or in the Gen-Z cohort, which apparently feels no compunction whatsoever to abide by the responsibilities of living in a community.
Despite pleas from government officials to stay home, if only for the sake of the elderly and other vulnerable, immunocompromised individuals, young people lined up outside of bars for St. Patrick’s Day, partied on beaches, and carried on like nothing was amiss.
“I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30,” tweeted Katie Williams on March 14, a day after President Trump declared a national emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak. “It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want.”
Williams, a candidate for the Clark County School Board in Nevada, followed up with “how can you spread a virus if you’re healthy and aren’t carrying it?” (She should probably get familiar with the basics of how infectious diseases work.)
Not to be outdone, Millennial celebrity Vanessa Hudgens sent an Instagram Live to her 38.5 million followers calling the potential for sustained containment measures “a bunch of bullshit.” She went on, “yeah, people are gonna die, which is terrible, but, like, inevitable.”
The breathtaking self-absorption and hubris of these statements, along with the thousands of young people who continue to scoff in the face of basic efforts to keep people safe, speak to a deepening existential void when it comes to our ability, as a country, to live with one another in community.
Containment measures aren’t born out of fear. They are not the manic result of a national panic. They’re a collective effort to keep one another safe, to slow the transmission of a highly contagious pathogen to individuals who will suffer it most deeply, and to prevent mass infections that would overwhelm hospital capacities.
It requires individual and collective sacrifice to make this work. At a minimum, it requires effort, self-donation, individual care, and commitment that are the hallmark of the community covenants that have built and sustained America for centuries.
Some of us are still capable. But in a very visceral way, this crisis has exposed a deep and unsettling strain of selfishness, egoism, and disregard among the generations who will soon be tasked with leading.
A viral meme has been circulating on social media, which reads, “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.”
Except, apparently, we cannot.
The nation will recover from this coronavirus crisis. And policymakers will have the chance to address the cracks in our preparedness that this virus response has laid bare. What’s less certain, however, is how we as a nation can address the weaknesses in ourselves.