How US pandemic preparedness can be a global insurance policy

Next year, when the new Congress convenes, there will be a myriad of competing priorities for the new representatives. One of those questions should be pandemic preparedness.

While COVID-19 may seem like a distant memory to some, the risks of natural or intentional disease spread are very much with us – it’s not a matter of if, but when the next pandemic will hit us. Unfortunately, the issue of pandemic preparedness has become partisan, while minimizing the magnitude of the risk or the benefits of the opportunity can be disastrous.

The risk of a pandemic disease is very high here. The Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics asked the Biden administration this week to declare a state of emergency over the spread of RSV amid rising flu cases. Monkeypox, although no longer in the news, remains a threat. In October, polio was again found in New York City’s sewage. All of this is happening against a backdrop of rising flu cases and increased hospitalizations.

It’s easy to lose focus after feeling like we’ve weathered the storm of COVID-19. Much of the country has returned to a sense of “normalcy” and the urgency of the threat has greatly diminished. Certainly our lives have changed irrevocably – the way we live, work, interact and more will never fully return to pre-pandemic normal. This loss of focus risks missing the aforementioned disease risks—any one of them can become a significant challenge, not to mention the unknown unknowns, and several of these occurring at the same time could be significantly stressful. our weakened health care system.

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Focusing solely on COVID-19 or “preparedness” misses the other half of the equation – opportunity. Congress should view pandemic preparedness not as an expense or an “in case of emergency” protocol. It should think of preparedness as a global insurance policy that will deliver benefits in the near future and, most importantly, in the event of a future pandemic.

Reinvesting and realigning strategic national stockpiles based on the lessons of COVID-19 will show that we are better equipped to distribute much-needed personal protective equipment and other supplies that were rapidly used during the pandemic. Dedicated pandemic funding, just as families do for a car, home or health insurance, will have continuous reinvestment and resources available in the event of a crisis. Establishing and stress-testing public-private partnerships will ensure that when the next batch of vaccines or drugs is needed, we are not starting from scratch. Rapid capacity building in hospitals will make us better prepared for any number of crises, including disease outbreaks.

We need to capitalize as much on the human side as on the asset side of that insurance policy. We need to build a cadre of people who are ready to respond in their communities when an outbreak occurs. We need to reinvest in our healthcare professionals – doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers – on whom we deeply rely in a crisis. We must also look to the next generation of medical technicians.

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Although all these arguments have been made before and endlessly agreed upon, little action has been taken. We need to reframe the debate beyond these critical and reasonable measures. We should view this pandemic preparedness insurance policy as a global competitive advantage in this era of strategic competition.

Preparedness has value as a deterrent. Man-made pandemics—whether of terrorist or national origin—are just as real a possibility as those arising from the natural world. By building a preparedness insurance policy – and publicly – there is the added benefit of undermining the appeal of a potential attack. If the adversary knows we are resilient and prepared, but their own population is far from such a comfortable position, they may think twice before acting.

China is going through a radical series of lockdowns and isolations, all in pursuit of an unrealistic “zero Covid policy”. While Beijing is making changes, the economic impact of this program is devastating to China’s growth. While it goes without saying that the next pandemic will provoke a similar response, viewing pandemic preparedness through this lens is invaluable in reframing our own approach. Instead of looking at it as a sunk cost, we should think of it as a competitive advantage. The strength and resilience we buy in the event of an emergency will keep us invested today and prepared for tomorrow. If our country can better overcome an epidemic than China, our economy will perform better and our security will be better assured.

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It also means we’ll be better able to help our allies, partners and those on the fence. If the United States were in a better position to respond during COVID-19 to the needs of the Middle East, Africa, Latin and South America, as well as Europe, how much goodwill would that buy in the near and long term? We argue that securing support for the democratic order through medical diplomacy is worth the costs of pandemic preparedness, especially in the long game of competition with China.

The next Congress has a significant opportunity to radically change the way we approach pandemic preparedness. Undoubtedly, their to-do list will be long and economic pressures will mount, but the cost of inaction and missed opportunities will far outweigh the cost of smart investment in an insurance policy at home and competitive advantage abroad.

Glenn Nye is president and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC). Dan Mahaffey is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for Presidential and Congressional Research, where he directs the geotechnology program.


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