Despite our incomparably vast resources and know-how, the United States has woefully failed to control the COVID-19 epidemic. Our shameful world-leading deaths and daily uncontrolled rising case counts are a clear result of the Trump administration’s failure to develop and implement a coherent national strategy to contain a virus that does not respect international, state, or municipal borders. The abdication of federal leadership that has left it up to state governments to decide how to manage the epidemic has allowed the virus to run rampant through the most porous US localities with the weakest policies and safeguards.
Respecting individual rights and trusting people to “make the right decisions” about mask-wearing, social distancing, self-quarantine, and testing has also been a failure when, given free choice — informed by President Trump’s strategy to intentionally downplay the severity of the coronavirus — too many Americans have been unwilling to sacrifice comfort for the safety of others. COVID-19 prevention measures, patchwork at best, have been turned into a weapon not to fight disease but instead to advance culture wars and political agendas.
The Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attack has important lessons during the current crisis.
The 9/11 attacks dramatically and irrevocably changed American life, and the US government’s response forever altered the US approach to security and privacy in the name of safety. The same must now happen with COVID-19.
The fundamental existential threat to America in 2001 was recognized instantly by all our leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, and the reaction to protect the country was swift, powerful, and coordinated, with strong and unstinting cooperation by nearly all Americans, who agreed to sacrifice some individual freedoms in the interest of collective safety.
We accepted increased government monitoring of email and financial transactions in order to thwart budding terrorism plots while still building in measures to avoid overreach and abuse. We conceded to having our luggage and bodies scanned each time we passed through an airport, something that had never been done before, in order to detect terrorist bombs and weapons.
Imagine if the War on Terror had been managed like the COVID-19 pandemic is being managed by President Trump today. President Bush would have given individual airports the freedom to choose which security measures to put in place, empowered airlines to decide when and how to fly, and made cities and states compete to purchase airport scanners while driving up prices. Governors and mayors would have left it up to individual travelers to decide whether they wished to take their laptops out of their bags or have their bodies checked for weapons — in the name of individual freedom.
All of us would agree that that policy to counter terrorism would be crazy. Under such a set-up, terrorists would pick the weakest airports and walk through them with impunity.
The coronavirus poses a larger existential threat to us. The virus does not care how we feel about individual freedoms. It welcomes and exploits behaviors that reduce our level of collective safety. If you are not wearing a mask or keeping your distance from others, you are an easy target and a prime vector for spreading COVID-19.
Given haphazard US response to the pandemic, with states and cities reopening in an uncoordinated way and following rules that fail to match the scientific facts (for example, leaving indoor dining and bars open even when there is clear evidence that they are sparking new disease outbreaks, or allowing schools and universities to reopen when epidemic-control benchmarks have not been met), it’s hardly surprising that the death toll continues with no national plan being considered to stop this avoidable madness.
Instead, our leaders in Washington pretend that COVID-19 has not killed nearly 200,000 in America so far — though that figure probably undercounts the true toll — and close to a million people globally. Yet in 2001 we proudly raised our heads and vowed to pull together to do everything in our power to stop Al Qaeda after 3,000 Americans were killed.
We know at this point from global experience what needs to be done to minimize COVID-19. Many other countries, from Korea to Italy to New Zealand, have shown how a strong multipronged effort coordinated by national leaders, with widespread acceptance and participation of the public, can stop COVID-19 in its tracks and keep deaths to a minimum.
We must completely reformulate our response to COVID-19, taking a page out of the playbook for the US response to terrorism.
The redesigned approach requires that we do five things: Enforce mandatory mask use everywhere by everyone, which has been incontrovertibly shown to be effective; coordinate business reopenings (and closings, when new infections take off) according to national — not local — standards that incorporate the latest scientific evidence; beef up testing and contact tracing to pounce quickly on fresh outbreaks; implement a fair and efficient national procurement strategy for PPE, tests, and drugs (and eventually for vaccines); and centralize and standardize monitoring of COVID-19 and make reporting swift and transparent.
It also requires government officials, especially Trump, to communicate clear, consistent, and accurate messages about what is happening with COVID-19.
Imagine that the same kind of post-9/11 threats of future attacks weren’t shared among US law enforcement — there would be outrage from our politicians and the general public. We should be equally outraged about the deliberate obfuscation of information by Trump and others on COVID-19.
As we observe the 19th anniversary of Sept. 11 and recall the sense of horror — and fellowship that followed — we need to radically rethink how we choose to respond to the horrors COVID-19, adapting what we learned from the war on terror. We must work together, as a true United States, to make the necessary sacrifices and take the essential actions to prevent the virus from winning.
Shan Soe-Lin is managing director of Pharos Global Health Advisors and a lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. Robert Hecht is a professor of clinical epidemiology at Yale University and the president of Pharos Global Health Advisors. Their column appears regularly in the Globe.