Americans should be worried — and hopeful — that the Biden administration has announced it will end the Covid-19 public health emergency in May.
Worried because the United States has not yet achieved pandemic security, despite decades of investment and three years of Covid-19, which has revealed how much American pandemic security rests on democratic and civic strength, both currently in short supply.
Hopeful because Americans can achieve pandemic security through creative, pragmatic action that bridges political divides and provides community-focused options for public health protection. What’s needed is a concrete pathway for action that attracts support from Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and others.
Covid-19 laid bare persistent inequities across America. Polarization, a comorbidity that made the pandemic worse, continues to impede a unified and effective response to public health threats, and not just those caused by viruses. When the next threat emerges — and it will — it is uncertain if most Americans will adhere to public health measures.
That is why our organizations — the Brown University School of Public Health Pandemic Center, the Covid Collaborative, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Health Policy Center — recently convened a diverse group of leaders to discuss how to better protect Americans from pandemic threats while at the same time reinforcing American values of freedom and democracy. The group included former governors and mayors; officials from red, blue, and purple states and from the Biden, Trump, Obama, and Bush administrations; as well as experts in incident management and pandemic inequity.
We asked these Covid-19 warriors, who often operated in wildly different trenches, to reflect honestly on mistakes made and bruises gained. That meant jumping over the psychological barriers to dialogue created by the nation’s polarizing pandemic battles. The discussion was candid about failures, highlighted community successes, and pointed to a way forward.
The group acknowledged that Americans failed to unite, and that the country’s existing tools for combating the pandemic — particularly early nonpharmaceutical measures, testing, and treatments — fell short. Early in the pandemic, the federal government failed to unify around a common purpose. Decision-makers and citizens often had a limited menu of blunt, binary, divisive choices that triggered stark societal trade-offs: Shut down society or open it up. Go to school or work, or do it remotely from home. Embrace collective responsibility, or individual freedom. Toxicity followed, divides deepened, and trust declined in public health, government, our democracy, and one another.
But the group also acknowledged that progress can unfold amid extraordinary adversity. The U.S. was a global leader in swiftly developing safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines and medicines. Leaders from government, the private sector, and communities across the country were the bedrock of the largest vaccination program in history. Community-based efforts narrowed racial and ethnic disparities in vaccine uptake. And Covid-19 revealed some of the best aspects of America’s federal system, as front-line mayors and governors formed so-called fusion cells to enhance information flow between organizations, and created ad hoc groups to meet the emergency.
This candid introspection revealed that a bipartisan approach to pandemic security in America is not only vital, it’s within reach. But it will require systematically listening to people in communities who experienced the pandemic in different ways — and bringing federal, state, and local leaders together with citizens to create better tools, training, and a roadmap of practical solutions.
We envision five concrete actions to undergird this transformative effort.
First, launch a new, national, bipartisan, community-focused forum that spans red, blue, and purple states to bridge differences in ideology and geography and identify what worked, what didn’t, and what could work. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, state and local leaders often quietly adapted, developing responses and working with federal officials in creative ways that flew under the radar of political debate. Much more needs to be done to catalogue these capabilities, unpack the lessons they teach, and build upon them for the future.
Second, create an initiative to tackle inequity head-on by developing a more inclusive menu of pandemic security options — with greater acceptance in communities — that will better protect essential workers, safely operate schools and businesses, scale necessary testing, and ensure access for all to vaccines and treatments.
Third, establish a network of incident command structures that bring together operators in real time across federal, state, tribal, and local levels. Part of that effort should identify steps to sustain fusion cells and interstate networks of Covid-19 response collaboration, such as the State and Territorial Alliance for Testing.
Fourth, design and deploy more effective crisis-response training and curricula for pandemic decision-makers and next-generation leaders. Many are not formally trained in crisis response, and many appointed health officials lack standard training competencies.
Fifth, create a body of wise and respected women and men to advise America’s leaders during future public health crises. Such an independent team — bipartisan, non-governmental, and drawn from public health, business, education, philanthropy, media, former elected officials, and more — will fill a glaring void.
Regardless of our respective identities, Americans share a common obligation to protect our families and communities from dangerous biological threats and also to preserve our values of freedom and democracy. The right spirit can achieve success: a shared determination to transcend differences and empower communities and decision-makers with more effective and more equitable tools.
A bipartisan approach to pandemic security in America is within reach.
Beth Cameron is senior advisor to the Brown Pandemic Center and professor of the practice of health services, policy, and practice at the Brown University School of Public Health. Gary Edson is president of the Covid Collaborative. J. Stephen Morrison is a senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.