In better times, the U.S. has, with some humility, owned up to its failures. Commissions have investigated tragedies such as Pearl Harbor and 9 /11. Presidential blue-ribbon panels bulwarked the Social Security program in 1983 and overhauled NASA’s space shuttle program after the 1986 Challenger disaster.
Three years into the COVID pandemic, more than 1.1 million people are dead, and millions more are living with long COVID. How did the nation judged most prepared for an epidemic or pandemic in 2019 suffer a death rate so much worse than peers such as Canada, Germany or Japan? These are historic failures, and with the Biden administration and Congress coming to a rare agreement that the national health emergency should now end, we need an honest examination of this tragedy and what led to it.
No one is asking in a comprehensive way why states understaffed public health agencies, the federal government left emergency supply shelves empty, test makers were unready for manufacturing, social media and cable news outlets let misinformation run rampant and everyone ignored past warnings of all these pitfalls. A bill creating a national task force on the COVID pandemic languished in the U.S. Senate. At least eight versions of this task force—modeled on the 9/11 Commission and supported by leading medical and scientific figures in the U.S.—have been proposed and gone nowhere in Congress, according to the Congressional Research Service.
How can we prevent another pandemic if we will not ask what happened? We need answers for the millions and counting who have been devastated by this disease.
We call on Congress and the Biden administration to support a comprehensive COVID commission to better understand the depths of this disaster and to point the way toward stopping the next global outbreak of a new and deadly transmissible disease.
Short of this, a grieving nation will be left with a patchwork of unconnected investigations of failures—such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travails in the initial response—and successes—which include the work on mRNA vaccines. There was a Commonwealth Fund report calling for stronger public health agencies. There were too brief advisories from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a body first chartered during the Civil War to advise the U.S. government on that national cataclysm. Congressional committees published Trump administration e-mails showing political interference with science. Last September a White House council released a studiously boring report on “pandemic innovation.” It was, at best, a final whimper of the Biden administration’s call for increased pandemic funding, which had been stripped from last year’s budget deal.
No matter how well intended, none of these efforts examined the totality of the U.S. pandemic response, so none can serve as a focal point for the country to understand what it has gone through. We had hoped that President Biden would call for such a reckoning during his recent State of the Union speech, but the only look back he promised was for fraudsters who stole relief funds. And many House Republicans who have unwaveringly misled their supporters on COVID—needlessly costing lives—have now begun their own unserious hearings aimed at demonizing the federal research agencies behind the very vaccines that saved millions of lives in the pandemic.
We live in a cynical age, and doubts about the prospects of a pandemic commission come all too easily. Yet political scientist Jordan Tama has found high-level commissions to be surprisingly influential in American politics, particularly presidentially appointed ones that aim for structural reforms. Those are the kinds of assessments we need now. We need to know when it is best to use travel bans and masks. We need to know how schools, business and hospitals should respond—before the next pandemic hits.
There’s plenty of blame to go around in the COVID outbreak, starting with China’s silencing of warnings—an authoritarian response that spurred the spread of the COVID-causing virus SARS-CoV-2 worldwide. The scientific community, the medical system and, not least, the press all made countless mistakes in the U.S. response to the pandemic, not just government agencies and elected officials. But none of that matters more than stopping another pandemic from wreaking the same havoc.
Given the enormity of the national moment, perhaps the most appropriate and authoritative path for a U.S. panel would emulate the truth and reconciliation commissions that have helped countries face deep national traumas—apartheid in South Africa, a murderous dictatorship in Chile and other such ordeals—by seeking restorative justice. The U.S. may need just such an effort after a global pandemic that has ripped the country apart. No nation weathered the pandemic without fault or blemish, but none had a right to expect better results, with less to show for those expectations, than the U.S. We no longer work, live or view the country the way we did before.
A reckoning, whether it comes in the form of a truth and reconciliation commission, a blue-ribbon panel or something akin to the 9/11 Commission, could help us repair the rifts created by our fragmented response and excruciating losses. In his State of the Union address, Biden described the devastation.
“Families grieving. Children orphaned. Empty chairs at the dining room table,” he said. “We remember them, and we remain vigilant.”
But it’s a curious kind of remembrance and vigilance that Biden and his colleagues in Congress envision, one that mostly looks ahead for new variants and vaccines rather than asking how we lost so many lives and blighted so many more.
The last truly successful national commission, the 9/11 Commission, was a bipartisan investigation into how nearly 3,000 people died on one awful day. Three years into the pandemic, more Americans now die every week from COVID on average than were lost because of the attack on 9/11. That’s more than 15,000 people gone in January alone, a still-brutal count that shows little sign of ending.
If one death is a tragedy, what are more than one million dead? In the end, are those lost in the pandemic—each grandparent, parent or child—just numbers to the American people? To our elected officials?
The time has come for an answer.