State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


COVID-19 Requires A Competent, Professional Federal Government

The Navy has sent a hospital ship with a staff of over 1,000 people to New York City and the Corps of Engineers and National Guard have turned the Javits Convention Center into a temporary hospital. General Motors has finally been directed to build hospital ventilators, and new forms of testing for the coronavirus have been built by private firms and fast-tracked through approval by the Food and Drug Administration. A $2 trillion emergency aid package emerged from the ideological swamp of the United States Congress. The president stopped talking about getting back to normal by Easter. After a month of talking, we are finally seeing some action. It’s clear that Donald Trump is looking at his TV and seeing Andrew Cuomo and a dozen other governors in charge, while he looks confused and impatient at his meandering and disorganized crises press briefings. But fortunately, the message has gotten through: this virus is not a hoax, and despite a sometimes shocking absence of competence, our powerful federal government is finally mobilizing to fight this disease.

Donald Trump is trying out for a new role as a “war-time” president, although the man of Mar-a-Lago looks a little miscast for the part. The president is a genius at messaging and self-promotion, but like the rest of us, he is unsure of the correct path here. He gets a phone call from the governor of Florida who is unhappy with all of the infected New Yorkers coming back to their winter homes to sit out the storm, so Trump floats the idea of an interstate travel ban. Nearly every New Yorker I know has instituted their own travel ban, so the policy is scary, unnecessary and as Governor Cuomo hinted, possibly unconstitutional. In any case, the president backed off when he spoke to the governors who had already urged people to stay at home. President Trump likes to look decisive, but he prefers for his performances to elicit good reviews.

The White House does not have a monopoly on incompetence in today’s federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency has its own piece of that pie. As Lisa Friedman reported in the New York Times last week, in response to industry lobbying:

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced a sweeping relaxation of environmental rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing power plants, factories and other facilities to determine for themselves if they are able to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution…Issued by the E.P.A.’s top compliance official, Susan P. Bodine, the policy sets new guidelines for companies to monitor themselves for an undetermined period of time during the outbreak and says that the agency will not issue fines for violations of certain air, water and hazardous-waste-reporting requirements.”

Like the president’s floating of a selective state quarantine, this is the wrong policy response to a difficult problem. Rather than issuing a license to pollute and a “get out of jail for free card” to all polluters, a more nuanced approach would be one that entertained short-term waivers for reporting and other requirements and stated that EPA would provide regulatory relief in order to enable employees of these companies to comply with public health requirements. Saying that we won’t enforce rules and won’t seek penalties is a complete abdication of EPA’s mandates and is both dangerous and simple-minded.

It’s true that shutting down America’s industry and transportation system is resulting in a less polluted environment, but I’d rather see a competent environmental regulatory agency than an economic depression.

The worst example of federal incompetence has been the administration’s halting approach to helping supply our health-care institutions with the facilities, equipment and supplies they need to respond to this health crisis. The president flew to Virginia to see the hospital ship Comfort disembark for New York harbor. He continues to see this crisis in political terms as an opportunity for a photo op and a virtual rally for his now home-bound supporters. But there are some photos he won’t want to see. If images similar to the overwhelmed health facilities in China, Italy and Spain emerge in the United States, the president will not be able to shift the blame for failure. And those images will not be limited to the blue states. They will certainly end up in red states that lack the medical infrastructure or tradition of activist government that may well save California and New York from the collapse of its medical institutions.

New York under Governor Cuomo and with the help of the federal resources he begs for every day, is opening up thousands of beds in temporary hospitals all over New York. Today a thousand-bed hospital is opening at the Javits Center. And before the expected case peak hits in about two weeks, additional facilities will be opened in every part of New York City. According to Alexa Lardieri of U.S. News and World Report:

New York has about 53,000 hospital beds across the state, with 3,000 ICU beds. The governor has mandated that hospitals increase their capacities by 50%, adding about 27,000 beds. If hospitals are able to increase capacity by 100%, an additional 5,000 beds will be made available. As part of the state’s Phase 1 operations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are establishing four facilities in downstate New York…Those sites will add 4,000 patient beds. The governor estimates that the state will need 140,000 beds and will ask Trump to authorize four additional hospital sites as part of Phase 2. The sites in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island would add about 4,000 more beds, bringing the state’s total to about 93,000. Officials are also looking into transforming the City University of New York’s City College and Queens College dormitories, as well as the Marriott Brooklyn Bridge hotel and Brooklyn nursing home, into temporary facilities…The governor outlined a timeline for getting the Phase 1 sites up and running, beginning March 30 with the opening of the Javits Center and Brooklyn Center. Construction on the Phase 2 sites, as well as cleaning and retrofitting hotels and dorms, will begin April 6 and continue through April 26.”

Of course, as Governor Cuomo has frequently mentioned during his press briefings, in addition to hospital beds, the state needs trained personnel, equipment and supplies. Thousands of retired health care workers have volunteered to serve. Equipment and supplies could be made by private firms at the direction of the federal government and at a price-controlled by the federal government. Instead, American states and cities are competing against each other for scarce equipment and supplies, driving the price of these items higher as demand continues to exceed supply. When questioned about this issue, the president told the governors to purchase what they need on their own and remarked that he was “not a shipping clerk.” Actually, that’s not the role we need, we need a purchasing agent backed up by federal authority directing companies to make needed items at a reasonable price.

Ever since 1981, when Ronald Reagan declared that government was the source of our problems, we have been stripping federal, state and local governments of capacity. The federal government has less staff today than it had in 1980. Its work is done by a growing number of private contractors and a shrinking number of federal employees. Under President Trump, thousands of competent professionals have left federal service. At the state and local level, the picture is mixed. In low-tax states, government has been hollowed out. In higher-tax states, some capacity remains.

The crisis that confronts us now requires technical, organizational, logistical, financial and scientific competence. American society has the resources it needs if it can find the political will and leadership to deploy it. The fundamental function of government is to protect its people. That is clearly what our governors are trying to do. But we need more than state-level response. The COVID-19 crisis requires a competent, professional United States federal government. We need the scale, resources and authority of our national government. Plenty of competent professionals remain in the federal government. If we can replace bluster and improvisation with measured, calm and rational decision-making we can rise to this occasion.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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