America Needs a 9/11-Type Commission to Investigate the Coronavirus Disaster

America Needs a 9/11-Type Commission to Investigate the Coronavirus Disaster

It is up to Congress, using its investigative powers, to clearly transmit a responsible bipartisan assessment of the coronavirus pandemic, and to let America know how it proposes to prevent another devastating public health crisis from ever happening again.

While the war of words between the president and the press has been cringeworthy, some distressing facts have glaringly stood out. A University of Washington statistical model suggests the virus’ final death toll will exceed 130,000 by August—far more than 9/11 and our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. Coronavirus testing lagged early on because of defective CDC kits; however, at the time of writing, the nation is testing 400,000 people a day. If this rate continues, the administration could test more than 3 percent of the U.S. population per month.

Earlier intelligence-driven testing and quarantine of foreign travelers entering the United States could have reduced the spread of infection. Funding cuts for infectious disease research projects also played a part. In September 2019, just two months before signs of the pandemic first appeared in Wuhan, the U.S. Agency for International Development ended PREDICT funding. This early warning system had a decade-long track record of discovering pathogenic hotspots and increasing our understanding of how coronaviruses leap from the animals to humans. Eliminating government-funded programs that increase international awareness of infectious disease probably seemed fiscally prudent at the moment, but their demise radically reduced our understanding of the virologic world beyond our shores. A decision like PREDICT was made out of political expediency, and it gets to the heart of how the world’s most prosperous country mismanaged the pandemic.

ACCORDING TO a Pew poll, in the 1960s seven in ten Americans believed that their government does the right things most of the time. Following the excesses of Vietnam and Watergate, attitudes took a turn downward. As Reagan-era populism took hold in the 1980s, Americans saw government and its sprawling institutions as the source of the nation’s problems rather than as a possible solution. Presidents and legislators, over the course of administrations, fought over how and when to use free-market principles to cut things down to size. Politicians, in short, ran government like a business and did a poor job of it. The proof is in the same Pew poll: just 17 percent of Americans believe that their government is trustworthy enough to do what is right most of the time.

Yet it is not just this free-market impulse that has harmed both the government and Americans’ perception of it. Uncomfortable as it may be to admit, there are signs of sclerosis and failure in the very institutions we turn to during crises. These are problems that span presidential administrations and require more critical examination. Consider the CDC and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example: the former bungled its own testing kit, costing the public a crucial three weeks of precious time and health authorities the ability to determine where and how quickly the virus was spreading, while the latter did not allow non-government labs to create their own testing kits until the end of February.

To rebuild trustworthiness, our leaders have to get back to basics. A government’s first duty is to protect its people and reasonably provide for their health, safety, and well-being. In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin says institutions are supposed to be forges of integrity and professionalism, not platforms people use to promote personal interests or a political brand. The guarantors of these first duties are federal health and emergency management institutions, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies. Levin writes that an institution loses trust “when it plainly fails to protect us, or even actively betrays our confidence, in the performance of its work—as when a bank cheats its customers, or a member of the clergy abuses a child.” Public servants, who intermingle government work with personal business interests, also erode institutional trust.

No one doubts since 9/11 that Washington’s ways have been downright messy—and perpetually getting messier. Years of continuing resolutions, budget caps, and partisan gridlock have added uncertainty to reauthorizing emergency response legislation or drafting new laws. Congress’ support for hospitals’ surge funding, like the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act, has slipped year after year. Inversely, some political dependencies also contribute to the mess—the CDC and FDA, two agencies with missions that are supposed to transcend petty politicking, are led by appointees instead of holding Federal Reserve-like independence from whatever the president might be tweeting about. And, over the last decade, the United States has off-shored 90 percent of its personal protective equipment industry. Many of the active pharmaceuticals for our life-saving medicines are now manufactured in China, India, and other nations.

A Coronavirus Commission—like the 9/11 Commission—would account for all the preceding factors with testimonials and an authoritative timeline of what exactly happened. For his level-headed and empirical approach to managing coronavirus in his state, New York governor Andrew Cuomo is an ideal chairman. His senior deputies would be the former heads of HHS, CDC, FDA, the Department of Homeland Security, or the various intelligence agencies. Career staffers from Capitol Hill are resourceful information gathers. To avoid partisanship, highly-experienced, apolitical government ombudsmen from the medical and intelligence fields, as well as academia, can get the job done just as handily.

This is a task that will take time. It took two years and eight dozen hard-working people to churn out an honest appraisal of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ shortcomings after 9/11. The new commission’s investigation could take just as long, but it is worth the effort. A renaissance in how the people see and respect their government is at stake. Our country owes a debt to a new class of everyday heroes—the emergency ward doctors and nurses treating the ill, the shippers and packers who keep our economy alive, and the grocery clerks who stock our pantries. It is up to Congress, using its investigative powers, to clearly transmit a responsible bipartisan assessment of the pandemic, and to let America know how it proposes to prevent another devastating public health crisis from ever happening again.

William Giannetti was a staff assistant to a Congressional probe that examined the FBI’s post-9/11 intelligence reforms. The views in this article do not represent those of the FBI or the U.S. government.

Image: Reuters.