Precaution and the Pandemic -- Part II

Joseph Tomain

April 3, 2020

Read Part I of this pair of posts on CPRBlog.

The coronavirus has already taught us about the role of citizens and their government. First, we have learned that we have vibrant and reliable state and local governments, many of which actively responded to the pandemic even as the White House misinformed the public and largely sat on its hands for months. Second, science and expertise should not be politicized. Instead, they are necessary factors upon which we rely for information and, when necessary, for guidance about which actions to take and about how we should live our lives in threatening circumstances.

From all of this, three recommendations emerge:

  1. Regarding the precautionary principle, we should recognize there are two dimensions to the approach. First, moving slowly and watchfully can save lives. We cannot rush to put dangerous and ineffective drugs and other medical supplies on the market. At the same time, it is more important to oversupply resources than it is to wait until danger is upon us. The country should not have had to face shortages of masks or ventilators. Similarly, preparation for health crises cannot be abandoned. By way of example, the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense that had been located in the White House should not have been shut down by the Trump administration. Created in 2014 after the Ebola virus epidemic, the mission of the Directorate was to prepare for and prevent a viral epidemic or a pandemic. The existence of the Directorate was not an unnecessary regulatory cost; it was a necessary health precaution that President Trump should have kept in place.
  2. The importance of science must be recognized in the administrative state; it should not be downgraded, ignored, or distorted. This is as true for climate change as it is for coronavirus. The role and importance of science is written into the legislation that created and instructs the FDA. Its politicization goes contrary to the will of the electorate as expressed in legislation that is over a century old and has served the country well regardless of industry criticisms. When sound science is ignored, the public pays the price. The same is true for mathematics: The gruesome numbers of the coronavirus' toll are piling up in just the way the experts predicted, despite the president's wishful thinking early on.
  3. Cooperative, not antagonistic, federalism should be the rule of the day. The U.S. Constitution requires as much. For the first three months of this crisis, antagonism between the White House and some governors, as well as between some governors and their mayors, distorted the response to the coronavirus pandemic. A more smoothly operating and consistent federalism structure can benefit public health and should be observed.

In the end, the coronavirus is testing our governmental structure in a number of ways. Can our leaders rise to the challenge of taking politically painful steps in order to save lives? Will the expertise of epidemiologists, medical researchers, mathematicians, and others be thoughtfully weighed? Will legislators and chief executives be able to negotiate toward effective responses or simply toward ones that please their political supporters? And will the various levels of government be able to work together, supporting each other's efforts? On these questions, hundreds of thousands of lives depend.

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