What lessons have we learned from the COVID pandemic? : NPR
The United States is going through COVID-19. Well, at least the federal government is.
President Joe Biden signed a resolution to end the national emergency to respond to the pandemic. In May, the White House also plans to disband its COVID response team.
More than three years into this pandemic, the federal government has never created an official commission to investigate, something that is routinely done after national emergencies. Efforts to create it stalled in Congress.
The non-partisan Covid Crisis Group has taken matters into its own hands. On Tuesday, it released its investigative report, titled “Lessons from the Covid War: An Investigative Report.”
NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly spoke with the group’s head, Philip Zelikow, about the report’s findings. He is also the former executive director of the 9-11 Commission.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
About the findings from the “Lessons from the Covid War” report.
The key to this crisis and the key to what went wrong was that we were not really prepared to meet an emergency. We had the best science. We were ready to spend the most money. That was not the problem. The problem was knowing what to do and being ready to do it. I think the reason we wrote the report was so people actually have a better idea of what you really want to do in an emergency like this. And I think everyone reading this report is going to say to themselves, “Oh, I think I understand that now. I think I understand why things went so wrong in all these different ways.” And also, they notice many things that went well, many improvisations that started to work. And so we must keep those lessons and not lose them.
About the central questions they were trying to answer
Instead of going back and trying to do a retrospective analysis of statistics and correlations, we instead went into this and asked ourselves, “Why did people make the choices they did? What information was available to them when they made those choices?” the options? What tools did they think they had to choose from? What institutions… or capabilities did they have or didn’t they have?”
After the initial lockdown – which people at the time actually thought would only last for a few weeks – people really didn’t know what to do… Without any tools, flying blind, we had to sit on all these flat instruments, which then polarized the country.
About the development of a vaccine and Operation Warp Speed
It was a success. In fact, President Trump himself had almost nothing to do with it. I think we have the best account of the origins of Warp Speed currently available in print. And we kind of explain what it is about this that actually worked, and also what about this really didn’t work.
Most people think of it, for example, as a research and development program. Mostly it wasn’t. Pfizer actually refused to participate in Warp Speed in the development of its vaccine. It was, above all, a manufacturing and distribution program. And Pfizer, in fact, participated in that part of it, and that’s where it got its big successes.
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If politics played a role in the creation of the vaccine
Also, politics is always in play when developing health decisions for hundreds of millions of people. And politics was at play here too.
In fact, the remarkable thing about Warp Speed was that it was relatively insulated from the cronyism and chaos that characterized much of the Trump administration. It was insulated in part because most of it was filed in the Department of Defense. And both the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs helped to insulate the program from political interference. And actually, we give some credit to the president’s son, Jared Kushner, who helped insulate the management of the program from some of his more meddlesome colleagues in the administration.
What lessons have you learned from the messages around the vaccine?
Also, the communication was terrible, if I can be clear. The good news is that we actually learned a lot about how to communicate well with people in crisis. The bad news is that we have virtually ignored all that knowledge and those lessons in this crisis.
The persuasive efforts that worked – and people did some of that – is where I actually reached out to the leaders in the local communities … Some of those efforts worked quite well in persuading people to use the vaccine. But overall, at national level, communication efforts have been poor. And in fact those problems were extended in the Biden administration as well.
What is the learning moment for the next virus?
I mean, this really is a competence crisis. It is not a science crisis. It is not a crisis of unwillingness to spend money. It’s not a crisis in the sense that, “Gosh, nobody had ever heard of a pandemic danger.” There were great movies and books about it, so people knew about the danger. They had the science. They were willing to spend money. The lack was knowing what to do and how to do it and then being ready to do it.
It’s like an emergency doctor who has an emergency in front of him on the gurney and is given a textbook and a bunch of money. But that doesn’t tell them, “Yeah, but I need to make a hole in this person’s chest to relieve the pressure on their heart. And how do I do that and have the training and confidence to do that in a crisis?” And this book really is kind of a revelation about, how do we restore a reputation for competence and problem solving?